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Family doctor shortage creates stress for patients, communities — and physicians

Even offering generous housing and cash incentives, communities struggle to recruit doctors

For the first time in his 81 years, Hugh Greenwood doesn't have a family doctor. And so almost every day, in a routine that has been going on for months, he sits at the kitchen table in his home in Owen Sound, Ont., and tries to find one.

"I've been phoning family physicians almost everywhere within a two-hour drive of here, and there's nobody taking new patients."

Greenwood has hypertension and a thyroid condition. His previous doctor left him with extra medications before moving away last July, but Greenwood only has a few months supply left.

"When I open the pill container, I'm thinking what's going to happen if I don't get my renewals," Greenwood said, spreading his remaining medications on the table in front of him.

"I know that my blood won't be thin enough to stop clotting, and I probably won't be here that long."

Greenwood understands he could go to a walk-in clinic and see a doctor about his renewals, but at his age he says he doesn't want a stopgap measure. Greenwood worries that not having a family doctor will shorten his life.

"I have grandchildren that I care about. I have a wife that I care about," he said. "And I would like to be here for a while."

The two counties in the surrounding area where Greenwood lives have a total population of 164,000 people – 31,000 don't have a family doctor, according to the Owen Sound Family Health Team.

And three local family physicians are set to retire in the next four to five years.

"I've been promised universal health care," Greenwood said. "And I feel I've been lied to.

"It bothers me that we keep on hearing that we have universal health care. And I think 'I don't think so.' All of a sudden, there are cracks in our system and it's not universal health care anymore."

The shortage of family physicians stretches across the country, with the latest figures suggesting that more than 6 million Canadians don't have one. For that reason the competition to attract doctors to communities is fierce.


ake Marmora, Ont., for example. One of only two doctors at the local health clinic in the small town, Dr. Emily Callery, estimates 1,000 of the 4,300 people in the area are without a family physician.

She says the search for another doctor has dragged on for two years. She also showed CBC News what the community offers to try and persuade a physician to come to the town.

"There are two apartments just above our clinical space," she said, pointing out the second story window of the building. "It actually overlooks the Crowe River – so you're really waterfront! It's quite nice."

Any doctor who agrees to work in town can live in one of the apartments rent-free for up to five years.

"It's a great opportunity," Dr. Callery said, continuing her pitch. "I think a lot of physicians could also just see it as a place to land, to get their feet settled, which is a huge savings, a huge incentive."


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