It's becoming more difficult to find a family doctor in Ontario as physicians age and fewer of them accept new patients, a new report suggests.

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, which released its annual survey of 27,000 members on Thursday, said the problem is especially acute for people who live outside the Greater Toronto Area.

"We were alarmed to find that only 11.4 per cent of family physicians are accepting new patients into their family practices," said Dr. Dale Mercer, the president of the college.

Increasing supply of family doctors

The Ontario government has:
  • Increased the pay for family doctors.
  • Added spots for residents and medical school graduates.
  • Opened a new medical school in Northern Ontario last fall.

"We believe that it creates a very significant access problem to get the primary care physicians that [patients] need."

The percentage has dropped sharply from the college's survey five years earlier, when 38.4 per cent of family doctors were accepting new patients.

In Toronto, 21.7 per cent of doctors were taking on new patients, whereas in southwestern and eastern areas of the province the number was below five per cent.

Key findings of the 2005 survey include:

  • The average age of practising family doctors has climbed to 51.7 years, from 49 in 2000.

  • More family physicians and specialists are approaching retirement age.

  • Physicians over age 65 tend to work fewer hours.

The 2004 National Physicians Survey reported similar trends across the country.

More family physicians and general practioners are specializing in non-traditional areas such as sports medicine, psychotherapy and cosmetic procedures, and aren't actually practising family medicine, Mercer said.

Female physicians, who make up almost a third of the work force, have increased the number of hours they work. About 51 per cent reported spending 40 or more hours at their main practice, up from 38 per cent in 2004.

Make family practice more attractive

The report's authors recommend trying to lure more young doctors to take up family practice, including:

  • Reducing their paperwork.

  • Adopting collaborative-care models that use senior nurses to take on some duties like taking a patient's history or blood pressure to free up a doctor's time.

Regional variation in family doctors accepting new patients
  • Toronto: 21.7 per cent.
  • Eastern Ontario: 4.7 per cent.
  • Southwestern Ontario: 4.5 per cent.
  • South Central Ontario: 10.6 per cent
  • Northern Ontario: 10.5 per cent.

The report's authors also call for increases in enrolment in Ontario's medical schools and postgraduate training spots.

Despite efforts to increase the pool of family doctors, the college received up to 70,000 calls from people seeking a family doctor in 2005.

Its website also allows people to search for a family doctor who is accepting new patients.