Ontario’s health ministry is asking family health team and nurse practitioner clinics to work at “full capacity” — including nights and weekends — to help keep more patients out of overwhelmed hospital emergency rooms.
But many such clinics are already doing that to cope with all of the demands of providing family medical services during an early surge of flu, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and COVID-19 cases, Kavita Mehta, chief executive officer of the Association of Family Health Teams of Ontario, said Wednesday.
“Most of them do offer evening clinics Monday to Thursday and many have at least one weekend clinic,” Mehta said.
The plea was issued Monday by the primary health-care branch in a memo with the subject line “important ministry request — respiratory illness season.” The memo acknowledged family health teams and similar clinics have been working “tirelessly.”
The memo asked for clinics to open “seven days a week, including evening availability, until further notice, to meet the needs of your patients. Please advise your patients of this availability so they may seek care in the appropriate place for their health concerns.”
Mehta said the memo’s intent was to get clinics to stay open longer “if there’s capacity,” which would be more feasible for larger family health teams with several dozen doctors, for example, than for a team with five physicians.
“Capacity is a huge problem. Burnout is a huge problem,” she added, noting family doctors are busy trying to catch patients up on medical care and screening delayed during the pandemic. Family health teams provide a wider range of services than sole practitioners.
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Health Minister Sylvia Jones faced several questions on long waits in hospitals during the legislature’s daily question period Wednesday following news reports the Children’s Hospital in London, Ont. has become the latest to cancel pediatric surgeries because of the crunch.
“How many more kids will have to wait long hours for care before this government takes action to relieve the burden on hospitals and ensure our kids get the care that they need?” said interim New Democrat Leader Peter Tabuns.
“It is obviously deeply disturbing for all of us to hear about parents who have to wait with their children as they get admitted, as they are waiting for that bed to open up,” Jones replied.
“But I also think it is important for us to understand and appreciate that these are not new issues and not new problems,” she added, blaming previous governments.
Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser said the memo appeared to show a lack of understanding of the volumes of patients that family health teams are handling.
“It’s like the minister and the premier are not really aware of what’s happening.”
Green Leader Mike Schreiner added “primary health care is facing the same health human resource challenges that our hospitals and long-term care and the entire health-care system is facing … there’s not enough family doctors in place for everyone to have access to a family doctor.”
Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1
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