The Northern Ontario School of Medicine is hoping its graduates can help solve the medical specialist shortage in the region.

Northern Ontario is lagging behind the rest of the province and has fewer medical specialists per capita than any other area, a NOSM official reports. That’s despite 12 new specialists having been hired in Sudbury last year.

NOSM opened its doors nine years ago, meaning the first class of medical students graduated in 2009, with some specialists finishing their training this past June.

Dr. David Marsh

Dr. David Marsh is with the Northern Ontario School of Medicine. (Barry Mercer/CBC)

“We’re really just at the cusp of starting to see students who did their medical degree at NOSM returning to northern Ontario to practice,” said Dr. David Marsh, the associate dean of community engagement at the school.

Far-away fix

Until medical specialists are working locally, patients rely on southern Ontario doctors to take on their case.

For Toronto-based allergist Dr. Sean Mace, that means flying to Sault Ste. Marie once a month to treat up to 70 patients every trip.

Mace has been making the visit for 16 years, however recognizes the shortcomings of his quick visits.

“As I’m only there for three days a month, it’s hard to provide any sort of follow-up,” he said.

In situations where the patient travels to the specialist, rather than vice-versa, wait lists can be lengthy.

From Sudbury, the nearest full-time allergist is Dr. David Fischer, three hours south in Barrie.

Fischer said one quarter of his patients are from northern Ontario, and that people have come from as far away from Hearst to be tested.

That’s put a strain on his ability to see his own local patients.

“Because of that, the waiting list has lengthened,” he said. “Sometimes the people in Barrie will refer further south than Barrie.”

“We have a way to go”

At Health Sciences North, David McNeil said he has seen a slight change in the care that can be accessed in the north.

The vice president of clinical programs at the hospital, McNeil said there’s still a major need for experts in cardiology, neurology, infectious diseases, and geriatrics.

“I think getting access to specialist care within the north has improved significantly over the last 10 years,” McNeil said. “I still think we have a way to go."