Family doctors turn to charity, other businesses to address PPE shortage

The measures come as Ontario physicians report a spike in the costs of masks, gowns and face shields — all needed for face-to-face visits during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ontario Medical Association say costs have soared as revenues plummet

Family doctors are requiring more masks and face shields for routine procedures during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the cost of those items — along with other personal protective equipment — has gone up. (Rafferty Baker)

Ontario family doctors are increasingly turning to charities to scrounge up the personal protective equipment they need to keep employees and patients safe as they hold more in-person consultations.

The measures come as physicians report a spike in the costs of masks, gowns and face shields — all needed for face-to-face visits during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Alykhan Abdulla, an Ottawa family doctor, said in-person visits are becoming more and more common as people seek care for chronic conditions they may have put off when pandemic restrictions came into effect in March. 

"Each one of those interactions requires some level of PPE. You can't just take a mask and wash it and stick it back on your face again. That really doesn't serve the purpose," Abdulla said.

"I've gone from $500 worth of PPE in a year to $500 a month. That's in the early stages, when we moved from 10 percent in-office [visits] to 20 percent ... can you imagine when I get to 50 percent?"

Dr. Alykhan Abdulla, a Manotick physician pictured here in 2015, says finding adequate personal protective equipment is a growing burden for those in family practice. (CBC)

Abdulla, who is also the chair of the Ontario Medical Association's (OMA) family and general practice section, said he's seen prices rise up to 10 times above their pre-pandemic cost, and cases where the material masks are made out of — including the ear bands — hasn't seemed adequate.

"It really is up to individual care providers to get the material that they need. And then in addition to that, there is uncertainty about what is the appropriate level of PPE that you need in various circumstances," he said.

OMA president Dr. Samantha Hill said the agency is distributing thousands of units of protective gear, raised through donations from St. John Ambulance and Conquer COVID-19 — an organization comprised of physicians, entrepreneurs and other volunteers — to address the shortage.

"We have managed to source PPE from various other communities such as dentists or beauty salons, even," she said. 

Hill said that isn't a permanent solution for family doctors, who don't benefit from the institutional buying power of hospitals or larger clinics, although some are banding together to purchase in bulk in eastern Ontario. 

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Samantha Hill, president of the Ontario Medical Association, says many primary care doctors are struggling to find enough of the personal protective equipment that will allow them to see patients safely.

The OMA says some 4,000 "individuals and groups" representing more than 12,500 health-care workers reported problems with their PPE inventory in May, and that supply remains an ongoing issue. 

Hill also said several Ontario clinics that fall under the fee-for-service model of doctor payment have closed, either permanently or temporarily, because their revenue fell off due to the drop in patient volumes. 

"This all comes in a place where most community physicians have really taken a financial hit over the last three months," she said.

Hill said the OMA wants the Ministry of Health to help secure a stable supply of protective equipment for all health-care providers. 

The ministry did not respond to CBC's request for comment by deadline.