Jennifer Jerome moved her family from Fort McPherson to Whitehorse last June, in large part, because the N.W.T. health-care system was too "frustrating."

Her first brush with the system came when her son Evander, five, started wearing hearing aids a few years ago. When receiving follow-up care, Jerome says they experienced difficulty with referrals, access to doctors and more often than not, had to travel to Yellowknife.

Her second experience came last year when her son was diagnosed with atypical tuberculosis in his neck.Throughout his diagnosis and treatment, they often had to travel to Inuvik and Yellowknife – sometimes just for blood work.

Evander also met with a rotating cast of doctors, which Jerome said was difficult, because they were constantly starting over with someone new.

"It's where I really saw the lack of doctors, lack of consistency in the health-care system and also where the nurses in the communities are really overworked," said Jerome.

Jerome is not alone in her experience.

According to a report released by Statistics Canada last week, only 45 per cent of people in the Northwest Territories have a doctor, nurse or medical specialist who they see or speak to regularly. The only province or territory with a lower rate is Nunavut, at 25 per cent. The national average, on the other hand, is 83 per cent.

Dr. Katherine Breen, president of the Northwest Territories Medical Association, said she's "not surprised" by this number "because the system here is quite different."

"With that being said, there still must be a mechanism for patients to be referred on to a community-based family physician," she said.

Made-in-the-North solution needed

According to Breen, there are several reasons why the Northwest Territories has a lack of doctors: the fact that there is no medical school in the territory; the idea that it's intimidating for young physicians to move to the North after school, because it requires specialized skills; and because there's no territory-wide program that's trying to recruit and retain doctors.

Katherine Breen

Dr. Katherine Breen, president of the Northwest Territories Medical Association, says she’s 'not surprised' by the low rate of N.W.T. residents who have a doctor they regularly consult with. (Eric McNair-Landry)

"We don't have our own made-in-the-Northwest Territories program, which has as an objective recruitment and retention of family physicians to the territory," she said.

Breen said the lack of access to health care is noticeable in the fact that people are being admitted to the hospital for medical complications or conditions that could have been treated or avoided with the help of a primary health-care provider.  

A recent study conducted by the University of Alberta also found that many in the N.W.T. aren't going for cancer screening due to a lack of access to, and long-term relationships with, health-care professionals.

But it's not all bad news.

Breen said Inuvik has found great success in recruiting doctors to the town and they have a "full complement of family physicians."

She added that Yellowknife has seen success with its team-based approach to health care, where doctors and nurses work in teams, so that if someone's primary physician is unavailable they have someone else they can talk to.

Breen also said the government is implementing a territory-wide recruitment campaign that involves face-to-face networking at educational events and conferences.

Jerome's story also has a happy ending.

She said that since moving to Whitehorse they've had a much easier time dealing with the health-care system. And, Evander was recently given the "all clear" on his tuberculosis.

Nobody from the Department of Health was made available for comment, despite multiple CBC requests for an interview.