The president of the Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM) says the Sudbury and Thunder Bay campuses are well-positioned to accept more medical students to meet a physician's shortage.
But combined, the two campuses are capped at just 64 positions.
However, Dr. Sarita Verma says in June 2021, Northern Ontario was in need of 326 physicians. That figure does not take into account practicing doctors who may retire in the near future.
There have been calls from organizations and municipalities, including Sundridge, to let NOSM allow more students into the school in order to address the physician shortage.
And during an online discussion with Sundridge Mayor Lyle Hall, Verma said the Sudbury and Thunder Bay sites can accommodate up to 36 more undergraduate spots plus a further 40 positions in post-graduate studies.
Verma told Hall the Council of Faculties of Medicine (COFM), which represents the six medical schools in the province including NOSM, has sent a report to the ministers of health, colleges and universities and Ontario Premier Doug Ford advocating for more students at each of the schools.
Verma adds the need for more medical school positions is so urgent the COFM report says its recommendations for a proposed expansion has to take place in the coming fiscal year, which begins April 1.
Verma told Hall the COFM report calls for the creation of an immediate increase of 65 postgraduate positions for 2022 to be shared among the six schools.
These positions would target rural, northern, Indigenous and other under-represented areas that need services to cope with mental health and addictions patients in addition to providing care for older adults.
The COFM report also recommends the number of medical school undergraduate seats be increased by 203 over five years and during that period, 36 of those positions would be allocated to NOSM.
Verma says the report has the support of the Council of Ontario Universities and the Ontario Medical Association.
Of the students who graduate from NOSM, 89 per cent stay in northern Ontario.
She says in one way NOSM has been successful in meeting the demands of health care in northern Ontario, but since the school can accommodate only so many students a year, and the physician shortage is so great, the school would need five graduating classes of 64 students each to meet today’s shortage of 326 physicians.
Hall was recently part of the Rural Ontario Municipal Association annual conference. Because of COVID, the event was held virtually.
He had a chance to discuss the points made by Verma to Minister of Colleges and Universities Jill Dunlop.
“We made a point of hammering on (the COFM) plan and said we want to encourage the government to produce (more medical) positions for northern Ontario,” Hall said.
Hall told Dunlop it took his municipality three years to find a doctor to replace the one who left the area.
During that period, 63 per cent of the people who live in Sundridge, Strong and Joly were without a family doctor.
With no walk-in clinics in the area, Hall said residents either drove to North Bay or Huntsville to access hospital emergency care where, at times, they experienced “hallway medicine” and ended up clogging emergency medical services.
Hall said the Sundridge area was the norm when trying to attract physicians and not the exception for rural Ontario and other under-served regions.
The Sundridge area finally attracted another doctor near the end of 2021, but it took a $25,000 signing bonus and $5,000 relocation allowance to accomplish that, which Hall says represents more than one per cent of the municipality’s tax base and creates a financial strain on a community its size.
Although Dunlop listened to what Hall had to say, and was sympathetic on the issue and had nothing negative to say, “she didn’t have the firm commitment I was hoping to get.”
He added the medical school expansion issue has so many moving parts that Dunlop told him in addition to her ministry, there would “need to be some tie-in to the Ministry of Health.”
Verma wrote recently in the NOMS “Northern Roots” newsletter the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities (FONOM) as well as the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association have each passed resolutions calling for expansion.
She added in addition to Sundridge, the municipal councils in North Bay, Sault Ste. Marie and other communities have also passed similar NOSM expansion resolutions.
FONOM is taking place in North Bay in May and Hall hopes increasing enrolment at NOMS is raised.
But he doesn’t want to stop there.
The Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) has its annual meeting in Ottawa this summer and Hall is aiming to create a delegation that could meet with Health Minister Christine Elliott at that event and make the case.
He’s hoping the delegation can include municipal representation from the Almaguin Highlands and officials from the Almaguin Highlands Health Council.
Hall believes if more communities from Parry Sound District also lend their voice to the delegation in addition to the various social services administration boards, the delegation would be highly representative of rural areas that are in great need of improved health care services.
Although the provincial election will have come and gone by the time the AMO conference takes place, Hall says before that there will be many debates during the election campaign on healthcare, including the need to expand seating capacity at the six medical schools.
“The upcoming provincial election can’t hurt,” Hall said.
“The circumstances and timing are good for us.”
Rocco Frangione is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the North Bay Nugget. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.