Doctors are sounding the alarm about the chronic shortage of physicians and health-care services in northern Ontario.

After a Health Quality Ontario report found that people in Ontario’s north have a shorter life expectancy and are more likely to die prematurely, the president-elect of the Ontario Medical Association wrote a searing op-ed about the health care crisis.

In the piece published last month, Nadia Alam told the story of a newborn baby who died on the way to the hospital in northwestern Ontario. Alam said the baby’s mother nearly died too because the area’s “one and only” anesthetist was away. The woman’s life was saved when someone finally reached a retired doctor.

Alam didn’t disclose the exact location of the baby’s death, saying it’s a tragic example of the health-care challenges that persist across northern Ontario. 

She wrote that the 15,000-strong community of Kenora, a northwestern Ontario city near the Manitoba border, is short “15-20 family doctors.” Alam also listed a critical shortage of anesthetists, psychiatrics, pediatricians and surgeons in northwestern Ontario.

Dr. Lisa Habermehl, a family physician in Kenora, said doctors are always struggling with making sure that their patients have timely access to care and necessary specialists. She said wait times are often long and many people have to drive hours to see a specialist or undergo a medical procedure.

In an interview with CTV’s Your Morning on Tuesday, Dr. Habermehl recalled an elderly man who suffered from dementia and had violent tendencies. But, despite his condition, his wife opted to keep him at home because they faced a wait of up to two years for a long-term care bed within a three-hour drive.

Although hospital operating funding in Ontario increased from $11.3 billion in 2003-04 to $18 billion in 2017-18, Dr. Habermehl said “throwing money at the problem isn’t the perfect solution.”

She said the Ontario government must address the gaps in primary care and that will involve more than just increased hospital operating budgets.

France Picotte, a resident of Timmins, Ont., lost her husband years ago as he waited to see a heart specialist. Her 90-year-old mother has had to make long journeys to Sudbury, Ont., about 300 kilometres away, for cancer treatments.

Although Timmins has a hospital and a family health team, many patients must travel to Sudbury for specialty care. The drive is treacherous in the winter, Picotte said. 

“I think that in Timmins, because we’re so far away, we really need some targeted prevention and early detection, which I think will help a long way with the survival rate of these people,” she told CTV’s Your Morning.

Dr. Habermehl said people living in remote and underserviced communities should look for the closest family health team in the area. That way, even if a doctor is not available, patients can still see a nurse or another health care professional, she said.

The Health Quality Ontario report found that most of the health-care “inequities” in Ontario’s northern communities, such as higher rates of chronic conditions, premature deaths and lack of access to family doctors, can be attributed to the fact that the population is spread over a vast area with many remote communities.

The report said a number of efforts to improve access to care are underway. They include telemedicine, provincial grants that cover some of the costs of travelling more than 100 kilometres for health care, and Aboriginal Health Access Centres that serve First Nations, Metis and Inuit people.