This rural family doctor would like to retire — he's 80

Dr. Peter Bell has been treating patients in the small eastern Ontario village of Sharbot Lake for 52 years. He's says he's probably ready to retire but the clinic's efforts to find a successor are bumping up against the wider doctor shortage.

Village seeking successor to Dr. Peter Bell amid larger doctor shortage

This small-town family doctor wants to retire. But who will take over?

4 months ago
Duration 3:12
At 80 years old, Dr. Peter Bell has seen generations of patients walk through the doors of his Sharbot Lake clinic. He’s been searching for his replacement for two years.

If he keeps working until his health gives out, Dr. Peter Bell says people will say he died doing what he loved. 

"I'd sooner have some time to just hike in the woods," he said.

Bell has been treating generations of patients in the small village of Sharbot Lake in Central Frontenac, Ont., about 120 kilometres southwest of Ottawa, for more than half a century: taking their blood pressure, performing biopsies and removing "hundreds and hundreds" of fish hooks from injured anglers — including "repeat customers."

At 80, Bell is well past the age when most people retire to pursue their passions — in his case, grandkids, gardening, being out in nature, and the hobby that first brought him to the area: antique hunting. 

But like so many Ontario communities large and small, Sharbot Lake is stuck in a larger trend that's forestalling Bell's professional curtain call. 

"We're into this major doctor shortage," Bell said. "Nowhere in Canada is comfortable now with being able to recruit easily."

Practice launched in 1970s from trailer

Bell is one of two family doctors, plus a nurse practitioner and other staff, serving a roster of about 3,000 patients from their exam rooms in the village's Family Health Team building, which overlooks the lake and its popular summer beach. 

That number includes year-round residents, seasonal cottagers, others living in communities outside Sharbot Lake but within the clinic's official coverage area and even some people, according to Bell and the mayor, who come back to Sharbot Lake for care because they can't quickly snag a family doctor in larger places like Kingston. 

Up the hill from the clinic is the parking lot where Bell, then a new doctor in his late 20s, started his practice inside a 60-foot trailer in 1971. 

Bell came to Sharbot Lake in the early 1970s and started his practice from a house trailer. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Bell said the village's previous doctor had died years before and while the widow offered his office to Bell, the rooms were too tiny and there was nothing else adequate to rent in town, so Bell brought in a trailer from Lake Ontario. 

As he cleaned it out, "An old man rode up on his bike and said in a country drawl, 'Is the doc in?' We opened a day early," Bell said. 

The bedrooms were examination rooms, the living room functioned as the waiting room and the bathroom was where specimens were collected. "The kitchen was the office," Bell said.

The water line from the hotel didn't always co-operate and the overall setup was tight, "but it worked" until the Township of Central Frontenac purchased the current clinic building in 1972. 

The Sharbot Lake Family Health Team building is decorated in archival photos outlining the history of the community. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

The clinic's workload makes it hard to perform as many house calls as in the past, Bell said, but he still prioritizes palliative patients. 

When the father of Central Frontenac Mayor Frances Smith died over a decade ago, Bell dropped by, she said. 

"My dad had been under his care. He stayed with us until the funeral director came."

Bell is also Smith's doctor. Her kids' too, she said. 

'He's earned his spurs'

Local financial planner Wayne Robinson has been Bell's patient for 50 years. He retired back in 2017, despite being five years Bell's junior. 

"I think he's earned his spurs," Robinson said of Bell's readiness to downshift. 

WATCH | He's been going to the same doctor for 50 years:

He’s been going to the same doctor for 50 years

4 months ago
Duration 0:32
Sharbot Lake resident Wayne Robinson said his family doctor, Dr. Peter Bell, is a “valiant, committed guy” and has the best bedside manner of any medical professional he’s seen.

Bell noted, without a hint of envy or disappointment, that some of the approximately 250 family medicine residents who have gone to Sharbot Lake for their rotations have also retired before him. 

Mayor Smith said Bell "needs to have a rest." She chairs the clinic's board of directors and said it has been doing what it can over the last two years to find a replacement. 

But "it's very difficult in this day and age," she said, citing competition from other communities and fewer family medicine graduates to pick from. 

"We go to job fairs, we have videos to say come to our beautiful area, but at this point there's not enough takers out there … We're continuing to try because we have to. Dr. Bell has been with us for 52 years." 

Bell's exam room offers a view of the shore of Sharbot Lake and its summer beach. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

The township pays the mortgage on the clinic building and can't afford to provide incentives for doctors, like room and board on top of funding its core services for residents, Smith said. 

But having a doctor like Bell is essential, she added, calling the active octogenarian "the hub of economic development." 

"A medical centre in your community is so beneficial to having people wanting to come to live [here]," Smith said. "Without medical care, a lot of the folks that bought homes here may not have."

WATCH | This rural community is struggling to replace its longtime family doctor:

This rural community is struggling to replace its longtime family doctor

4 months ago
Duration 0:48
It’s not unusual to get test results back from Dr. Peter Bell on the weekend, Central Frontenac Mayor Frances Smith said, and he “needs to have a rest.”

'Kudos to Dr. Bell' 

According to the Ontario College of Family Physicians, 1.8 million residents in the province don't have a family doctor — a number it says could reach three million by 2025 if current trends persist. 

About 1.7 million people have a physician over the age of 65, said Dr. Jobin Varughese, the college's president-elect 

"So, unfortunately, as tragic as it is to say 'Thank you for all of your service, but continue to work,' [even older doctors like Dr. Bell] may become a little bit more common than one or two cases," Varughese said. 

Dr. Tara Kiran, a family doctor and researcher at St. Michael's Hospital, which is part of the Unity Health Toronto network, said there is a worrying trend of fewer Ontario medical students choosing to enter family practice, and there are several potential reasons why. 

Those include a fear of working alone at clinics not staffed by teams, lower pay and perceived stature, and a significant amount of time spent on paperwork instead of interacting with patients. 

"The paperwork in primary care is horrendous," Bell said. "Wednesday is a day off, but [they] tend to be paperwork days."

Bell and Kiran also cite a backlog in medical services created by the COVID-19 pandemic, which puts "a huge increase in pressure on us," he said.

Kiran co-authored a recent study showing many family doctors retired early in the pandemic, whereas Bell says he'll stay on at the Sharbot Lake clinic until they find the right person to replace him. 

"Well, kudos to Dr. Bell for his commitment to his practice and to the town," Kiran said, adding it's not uncommon for some family doctors to work into their old age. 

"It's a profession that we train a long time for and it becomes a big part of our identity."

Bell says he first came to Sharbot Lake while antique hunting. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

'It won't be easy to give up'

Kiran's remark gets at an important point about Bell: part of him may not want to put down his stethoscope for good. 

"I think it's time for him to take time for himself, but I don't think he's going to go very easily," said nurse and co-worker Alicia Thompson, who's also been Bell's patient for 24 years. 

Bell admitted, even if the clinic finds a new doctor, it might be hard to move on.

"I have a lot of other interests in life, so I won't be lacking for things to do or challenges," he said. "But yes, I think maybe it won't be easy to give up and pass on to somebody else."

The building that houses the family health team awaits a new lead doctor, but Bell continues to be the main primary care physician. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Bell took to other things late in life: he didn't start running in triathlons until he was in his 40s, and he had his last child while in his late 50s. 

But when it comes to his long medical career and his delayed retirement, his mind turns to running. 

"I often think that doing marathons is kind of like [operating] a family practice: it's long and hard and challenging work. Somewhere along the way you're likely to hit the wall, and you push on through."

Dr. Peter Bell has been practising medicine for over fifty years. He feels ready for retirement. But he’s committed to stay on until a replacement can be found.


Guy Quenneville

Reporter at CBC Ottawa, originally from Cornwall, Ont.

Story tips? Email me at or DM me @gqinott on Twitter.

With files from Safiyah Marhnouj