Ford government asks primary care doctors to work at 'full capacity,' extend hours

WATCH ABOVE: With hospitals under sustained pressure from a triple threat of respiratory illnesses, the province is asking doctors to expand their clinics to offer evening and weekend services. Colin D’Mello reports.

Primary care physicians in Ontario are being asked to work at “full capacity” as provincial emergency departments struggle with a triple threat of respiratory illnesses that’s overwhelmed hospitals and forced the cancellation of surgical procedures.

A recent memo, sent by the Ministry of health on Nov. 21, acknowledged that the province is dealing with a “difficult and complex” respiratory illness season and called on primary care doctors to “offer clinical services seven days a week, including evening availability, until further notice.”

“Every effort made to increase your organization’s availability to patients will support the health-care system to alleviate pressure on emergency departments,” the memo, obtained by Global News, read.

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Health Minister Sylvia Jones says her government is in “constant contact” with all facets of the health-care system to “make sure that everyone is working at full capacity” to ensure patients have access to care.

But physicians said many clinics have already been offering around-the-clock primary care in addition to routine cancer screenings and scheduled procedures — suggesting there is little capacity to increase services.

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Dr. Allan Grill, Chief of Family Medicine at Markham Stouffville hospital, said that while “everybody is doing their best to fit their patients in,” doctor’s offices are facing the same resource pressures being felt across the health-care system.

“We’ve had just as many people have to take time off for burnout. We’ve had people away that are sick. We’ve also lost nurses that work with us in our offices, just as we’ve seen in the hospital and acute care system,” Dr. Grill told Global News.

Despite that, Dr. Grill said his practice has been trying to offer as much patient care as possible.

My office actually provides care to our patients every day. We have urgent care clinics on weekends, and many family health teams offer very similar services. And even if they’re not open seven days a week, they often offer a virtual care component, like a call in, or they let their patients know where they can go for care,” Dr. Grill said.

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The memo initially caused confusion among health-care providers, who questioned exactly what the province was asking of them, forcing the Association of Family Health Teams of Ontario to send its own memo to members on Tuesday to clarify the ministry’s position.

“In discussions with the Ministry, this memo was not intended to be directive nor prescriptive, but was a request to communicate to your patients about how to access care, especially for sick children, with a focus on receiving care through their primary care teams first so that your patients do not seek care in the hospital if not needed,” the association said in an email to members.

“If you aren’t open or accessible seven days a week, please let your patients know where else they can seek care first before going to the hospital.”

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When asked for clarification, the Ministry of Health confirmed the government is asking “organizations” that provide primary care to increase their hours and help take the burden off of hospitals.

“Recognizing that not all Ontarians can access primary care for their children during the regular work week or within regular working hours, we have asked for organizations to expand their clinical services to meet the needs of patients, especially for sick children,” the ministry said in a statement.

“This will help avoid unnecessary visits to hospitals and keep our emergency departments available for those who require urgent care.”

© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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