Health Minister Eric Hoskins is defending the Ontario government's decision to eliminate 50 medical residency positions when hundreds of thousands of people don't have a family doctor.
Ontario has nearly doubled the number of first-year medical residency spots since 2004 to about 1,200 a year, and is now scaling back to make better use of scarce health care dollars, said Hoskins.
"We're going to be working with our medical schools and our universities, with the OMA and other stakeholders, to look at a modest reduction from that 1,200 number, but we'll still have more residency spots than there are Ontario graduates in any particular year," he said. "We're still going to be licensing about 700 doctors each and every year in Ontario."
Ontario had 1,013 Canadian medical school graduates plus another 200 from international medical schools in its first-year residency program in 2014-15.
The Ontario Medical Association complained it wasn't consulted about the residency cuts by the Liberal government and said there are still 800,000 people in the province who do not have a family physician.
"Cuts to medical school enrolment and training positions in the 1990s led to doctor shortages and longer wait times," said OMA president Dr. Mike Toth. "We have .. a growing and aging population who require more complex care. We need more doctors to meet those needs and provide that care, not fewer."
Hoskins said it wasn't "necessarily appropriate" to link the cuts in residency spots with the fact many people don't have a
family doctor. The residency cuts could come in specialties where there are too many doctors, while the number of spots for family medicine could be increased if warranted, he added.
"We'll make these modest reductions very carefully," said Hoskins.
The Progressive Conservatives noted the Liberals cut $54 million from health care in the 2015 budget, and said the existing doctors' shortage is having a significant impact on the quality of life in many smaller communities.
"Cutting the number of residency spaces ... can cause patients to rely on walk-in clinics and emergency departments instead, unnecessarily raising the cost of health care services," said PC Leader Patrick Brown.
The New Democrats said Premier Kathleen Wynne broke her promise that every Ontarian would have access to a primary care provider, and is now making the situation worse, especially in already under-serviced areas like the north.
"Northern and rural residencies are an important way of getting physicians to (stay in) these communities," said NDP health critic France Gelinas. "When the Liberals are cutting back residency spaces, I worry that northern and rural resident placements will get hit first."
The OMA called the elimination of 50 first-year residency spaces "irresponsible and unacceptable," and said the government was being short-sighted.
"Doctors tend to stay and set up practice where they train," said Toth.
The Liberal government apparently made the cuts to save costs and help reduce its $10.9-billion budget deficit, but not to help patients, added Toth.
"Ontario's doctors do not believe this decision was made with patients as the top priority," he said.