'This is a crisis': Perth, Ont., bracing for family doctor shortage

The eastern Ontario town is trying to figure out how to best deal with a pending doctor shortage as two physicians are set to leave their practices, leaving about 2,100 patients without primary care.

Some 2,100 patients could be without a physician by the end of 2019

Perth, Ont., Mayor John Fenik says his town will have to work together to come up with a solution to the impending doctor shortage. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

The town of Perth, Ont., is bracing for the impending departure of two physicians, potentially leaving a third of the community without primary care.

In the past, when doctors left town or retired, other local physicians were able to absorb some of the patient load.

But there's no way that will be possible this time around, said Dr. Alan Drummond, who practises in the retirement community of about 6,000.

"I think we're in some big trouble," said Drummond. "I hate to use the word crisis in health care, but this is a crisis."

Current doctors 'maxed out'

One local doctor is leaving his practice after putting off retirement several times, according to Drummond. Another has decided to specialize in helping military patients with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Drummond said the town realistically needs to recruit four doctors to cover so many patients. 

"Everyone is currently maxed out anyway, in terms of their ability to look after their own patients. So this is probably a bridge too far for us," said Drummond.

"For the town of Perth itself, there are 2,100 patients who are going to suddenly find themselves at the end of this year without a family doctor."

While the picturesque town south of Ottawa has never had trouble recruiting doctors in the past, Drummond said the problem is how quickly they'll need to find replacements.

"I don't care how nice a community you have. It's impossible over five or six months to attract four physicians and get them up and running."

Dr. Alan Drummond says about 2,100 patients in his community of Perth, Ont., could find themselves without primary care due to the impending departure of a pair of local physicians. (Submitted)

'Community challenge'

The pending shortage is an issue the whole town will need to work together to solve, said Mayor John Fenik.

"I really view this as a community challenge," said Fenik. "The elders who can't drive to Kingston or Ottawa to access a walk-in clinic, they're aging in place. And they need that support."

Drummond and his colleagues are now working on a plan to ask Ontario's ministry of health for assistance.

Until new doctors are recruited, additional nurse practitioners could go a long way to help with the workload, he said.

"In fairness to the government, they haven't heard about this yet, but we will be making overtures to them to be sure," said Drummond, acknowledging the challenge of getting provincial help at the same time health care cuts are being announced.

"The hospital isn't really responsible for primary care delivery. The municipality has no money. The county has no money. The only people with the power to pull those strings are the ministry of health."

Barry Guppy, the new CEO at the Perth and Smiths Falls District Hospital, said shortages of family physicians do happen in many communities from time to time.

"As a priority, the Perth and Smiths Falls District Hospital is working with our local physicians and other primary care providers, the community and other partners to ensure that the community has access to the primary care they need," said Guppy.