London-area health-care providers seek city dollars to fund recruitment program facing skepticism

London, Ont.'s city hall as seen in October 2021. Matthew Trevithick / Global News

The Middlesex London Ontario Health Team (MLOHT) is requesting close to a quarter-million dollars from the city spread over three years to help recruit doctors to the area.

In a request a city committee will discuss Tuesday, the health team is asking the city to contribute $80,000 annually to run a primary care recruitment and retention program.

“We firmly believe that by investing in our Primary Care Recruitment and Retention Program, we can make a significant and lasting impact on the healthcare landscape of our community,” reads part of a letter to council from the health team.

The program would cost around $200,000 a year, with the bulk of the money spent on hiring a recruitment co-ordinator and developing and implementing retention strategies.

According to a presentation slide deck from the MLOHT, family physicians in London and Middlesex County average roughly 1,300 patients per doctor. They estimate around 65,000 residents in the Middlesex London region do not have access to a primary care provider.

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Beyond the growing demand for primary care, the health team says key issues include difficulty in replacing physicians in rural areas, no additional space available for expansion at most clinics and the age of physicians. According to the presentation, only 27 per cent of patients are rostered to physicians under the age of 60.

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“Many patients are turning to emergency rooms for primary healthcare and are contributing to hospital overcrowding. When the system is stressed or caregivers are rushed, decision making is altered, rates of error increase, and important processes of care are impeded,” reads a staff report to councillors.

While the MLOHT and city staff paint a grim picture, there is skepticism about whether city dollars should be put toward recruitment efforts for doctors.

Deputy Mayor Shawn Lewis tells Global News that while the points of concern raised are valid, a municipality should not spend money on health care.

“This is a serious issue … but this is clearly a provincial responsibility,” said Lewis. “Health care is the job of the federal and provincial governments in terms of sharing the funding costs and the province’s responsibility to deliver.”

Lewis referred to the proposal as creating a “bidding war” between municipalities to find doctors. In the report to councillors, staff and the MLOHT reference multiple other Ontario cities, like Kitchener-Waterloo and Cambridge, currently deploying a similar system to the one proposed. A direct comparison is made to Hamilton, which has several local organizations contributing to its program.

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The MLOHT is proposing a similar setup, with the City of London contributing 40 per cent of the costs and the rest split between Middlesex County, the London Economic Development Corporation, the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry, London Health Science Centre, St. Joseph’s Health Care and the Middlesex Hospital Alliance.

“It’s just a race to the bottom,” said Lewis, adding if London resources are used to attract a doctor away from a different municipality, it could create a bidding war of cities one-upping each other on how much they spend to get doctors.

Lewis says rather than supporting the program, the province must step in and provide resources to improve service areas facing shortages of family physicians.

“We can not backfill provincial responsibilities onto property taxes.”

The report will come before the community and protective services committee on Tuesday at 4 p.m.

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