Doctor departures turning east Ottawa into care 'desert'

The recent departure of family doctors is raising larger concerns about a primary care "desert" that has spurred a community group to call for a new centre to help address a growing need.

Retirements and departures of mid-career physicians leaving patients in the lurch

Community group says primary care 'desert' is forming in eastern Ottawa

5 months ago
Duration 0:53
Nathalie Lafrenière, executive director of the Eastern Ottawa Resource Centre, said the need for a community health centre east of the Rideau River has been apparent since before the pandemic.

The recent departure of family doctors in east Ottawa is raising larger concerns about a primary care "desert" that has spurred a call for a new health centre.

Recent data says Ottawa has 134,000 unattached patients seeking a family physician, though there could be tens of thousands more due to recent departures. 

    Retirements and departures of mid-career physicians are leaving more patients searching for a primary care provider.

    Some of those patients desperate for a family doctor have gone to staff at the Eastern Ottawa Resource Centre seeking answers.

    "They are visiting emergency rooms, they are coming to our doorstep not knowing where to go," said Nathalie Lafrenière, the centre's executive director.

    "As a community resource centre, we have no capacity to be able to support them."

      Resource and service centres are located throughout the city to provide access to social services, such as helping seniors live independently.

      Lafrenière said people with chronic illnesses or disease are not receiving essential health-care services.

      "They are really panicked by the situation," she said. "We're just kind of seeing this desert being created of unattached patients."

      Different model could attract doctors

      Lafrenière, who also co-chairs the Coalition of Community Health and Resource Centres of Ottawa, said a new community health centre could help address the problem in the east end.

      That model, seen at several locations in the city, includes a family doctor, nurse practitioner and other staff, tapping into a network to provide more specialized services in a team environment, she said.

      The Sandy Hill Community Health Centre, shown here, works operates with a model to provide primary care, while it also provides addiction and mental health services. The Pinecrest-Queensway Community Health Centre is another example. (CBC)

      A community health centre model would also help attract medical professionals who would get benefits, pensions and time off, said Lafrenière.

      "It offers work-life balance that people have been seeking," she said.

      She suggested a new centre could be located anywhere east of the core in Vanier, Gloucester or Orléans and provide 5,000 people in vulnerable situations access to primary care.

      This would be different than the Orlèans health hub, which features various specialists that require referrals from family physicians.

      The Ministry of Health did not provide a statement by deadline about the requirements to approve and fund a new community health centre in the east end.

      Systemic issues

      Ivy Bourgeault, a University of Ottawa professor and chair of the Canadian Health Workforce Network, said the recent departure of doctors speaks to systemic issues.

      She said the health-care system needs to give doctors different options of models of care.

      "We haven't been planning and supporting the workforce to retain them to ensure that there is sufficient numbers and coverage," Bourgeault said. 

      She said the community health centre model gives health-care professionals a chance to work in a supportive team focused on patients, which creates "less vulnerability" in the system.

      "You have more practitioners working together being able to support each other so that [health-care professionals] don't feel that their only recourse is to leave and to leave a community unserved," she said.

        Dr. Lawrence Loh, executive director and CEO of the College of Family Physicians of Canada, said many early and mid-career doctors leave their practice to escape the "treadmill" of running a business while caring for patients.

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        Current family medicine situation is like a 'major snowstorm,' this director says

        5 months ago
        Duration 1:00
        Dr. Lawrence Loh, executive director and CEO of the College of Family Physicians of Canada, said a team approach is needed to ensure doctors aren't "unnecessarily burdened" by administrative tasks.

        "They're choosing other things where they don't have to run a business, where they can work at a hospital, or they can work in focused practice," Loh said. 

        "They're also interested in working collaboratively in a team, recognizing that care is a lot more complex."


        Matthew Kupfer

        CBC Reporter

        Matthew Kupfer has been a reporter and producer at CBC News since 2012. He can be reached at and on Twitter @matthewkupfer

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