The 5 Challenges Facing the Doctor Shortage in Waterloo Region

IMAGE_AboutUs_Staff_MSFitzpatrick_25FE11Mary Sue Fitzpatrick
Vice President, Physician Recruitment
Greater Kitchener Waterloo Chamber of Commerce

For the past 15 years the Greater KW Chamber of Commerce and its Health Care Resources Council has made it its job to try and recruit as many doctors to the Kitchener-Waterloo-Woolwich community as possible. We have been successful in lowering the number of residents in the Region who do not have access to a family doctor, but there are five major challenges we face every day in our efforts.

1. 25% of Doctors in Ontario are at Retirement Age

One of the most sobering issues we are faced with immediately is the fact that a quarter of all doctors in the province are at or passed retirement age. This means that in the very near future the province as a whole will need to replace these dedicated physicians.

As an organization we deal with new doctors who want to come into the area to help take over the retiring doctor’s practice or adequately allow that doctor to take on a retiring doctor’s patient list. This will be an important and challenging objective in the near future as more and more doctors will be retiring with fewer doctors to take their place.

2. New Doctors Take Patients On at a Slower Rate

Traditionally, a seasoned family physician will have developed a patient list that can range anywhere from 1500-2500 patients. As new doctors finish their residency requirements and set up their practices in the Region it can take them several years to start taking on even 1000 patients. Most physicians when they are starting out tend to ease into their practice by first taking on a few hundred patients at a time in order for them to get to know they patients and get comfortable as a family physician.

In my experience, almost all doctors do this when they start out. Think about it this way. When you start out at a new job you typically ease your way in rather than sprinting along. Now think about a profession where people put their lives in the hands of your expertise. This is why they ease into their practices and this problem is only exacerbated by the next challenge.

3. Incoming Doctors In General Take on Fewer Patients

In a sudden trend reversal, women now make up the majority of new graduating physicians. While this is a tremendously prideful change in the demographics of doctors in Ontario, young female physicians do tend to take on fewer patients than older doctors today. The issue here is that much like the last challenge discussed, new doctors are slow to take on the numbers of patients that were once serviced by older doctors, but now the majority of new doctors being female mean there needs to be more doctors graduating than are retiring. This is an issue that is nearly impossible for the Chamber and the Resource Council to have any influence in changing, but it is a challenge that is of vital importance to recognize.

4. Diverse Medical Facilities are Still Scarce

When we take doctors around the Region to see if they want to come and practice here, one of the biggest questions on the minds of the new physicians is in regards to medical facilities. Where will they practice? Is it adaptable to their needs? Is there a Family Health Organizations (FHO) that they can be part of? These types of questions are very common and are top of mind for anyone looking to start their very first practice.

Luckily, Waterloo Region has been playing host to several different options that are both innovative and adaptable to their needs. It is my experience that new doctors do not enjoy the idea of a single doctor practice in a 3 room doctor’s office that we remember from our own childhood. Doctors now enjoy working more in teams or groups with a work space that perfectly meets their needs and also the needs of the patients.

Facilities like the Andrew Street Family Health Centre, the Northfield Medical Centre, and most certainly the anticipated Medical Centre at The Boardwalk are all different examples of medical facilities that help attract new doctors, but there are only a finite number of these facilities right now. The community needs more up-to-date facilities to help entice physicians to set up a practice instead of having to worry about renovating something that doesn’t fit their needs.

5. Funding for Recruitment Initiative a Struggle

The Chamber’s initiative to recruit new doctors to the Region is not something that is funded directly from the municipalities. The funds needed in order to successfully recruit family physicians are supported vastly by the generous corporate community. A portion of our yearly budget does come from the City of Waterloo, City of Kitchener, and the Township of Woolwich, but year after year the corporate community has been the reason our efforts are anywhere nearly as effective as they are.

Over 90% of our budget comes from independent businesses based in the Region who are forward thinking enough to know that our community, and their employees, are better off having adequate health care services in the form of a family doctor. While the corporate community has continuously stepped up to help fund the initiative, it is still a challenge to reach our goal sponsorship amount year after year. We thank our corporate sponsors and with a solid team of advocates for us in the business community we hope to continue to appeal to these generous organizations to help solve this issue.