Doctor shortage prompts Queen’s to train more family physicians for Ontario

Queen’s University is expanding the number of students it will accept for its medical school in an effort to produce more family doctors for Ontario.

It plans to add 20 seats for students in the fall 2023 semester who want to become family doctors — a lofty goal, according to health science department dean Dr. Jane Philpott.

“This is a very ambitious timeline,” Philpott said. “But that speaks to the urgency of the situation.”

In 2019 Statistics Canada reported that about 1 million Ontarians were without a family doctor, and Philpott said the shortage has trickle-down effects on the system as a whole.

Dr. Jane Philpott, the dean of the health sciences department at Queen’s University, says family doctors help detect potential health issues early on, limiting the need for larger-scale medical interventions. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Communities without family doctors have trouble attracting new residents, and the people already living in them often end up relying on urgent care.

“So emergency departments get flooded with people who don’t have access to a family doctor,” Philpott said.

“People aren’t getting the care they need as quickly as they need it.”

Philpott said the problem will also slow down the health system’s recovery from the pandemic.

We hope to identify communities that are in need, and we want the students there.— Dr. Tony Sanfilippo, Queen’s University

Another consequence of people not getting regular health screenings from a family doctor is that any undetected problems become bigger down the road.

“If you don’t have access to a family doctor, nobody is regularly checking in to see if you’ve had your Pap test or your mammogram done,” Philpott said.

“Then if you go years without it, you find out too late that you’ve got some advanced condition.”

A different path

Dr. Tony Sanfilippo, senior adviser of educational expansion and innovation for Queen’s health sciences, said the way specializations are chosen at medical schools has probably played a part in the shortage of family doctors.

Family medicine used to be the only “destination” for medical school graduates, but it is now one of the 30 streams students can choose to go into.

Getting regular mammograms and other types of health screenings is one way family doctors can take pressure off the health system. (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

This new program will give specialized training to people who want to be family physicians.

“We’re going to produce a system where students who already know that this is what they want to do will come into a training program that is specifically designed to prepare them for that purpose,” he said.

One change will be that prospective family doctors will do some of their training in the communities they’d be serving after graduating.

“We hope to identify communities that are in need, and we want the students there,” he said.

“We want them to see what that community’s like and to take up roles in that community as their skills evolve.”

Details being worked out

Philpott said there is a lot of work to do before the 2023 fall semester.

Sanfilippo is working on a “seamless curriculum from med school right through to family medicine training, as well as our new admissions process,” she said.

But applications aren’t yet ready to be accepted, so people who are interested should look for information online down the road.

The plan is to add 20 spots for prospective family doctors by the fall 2023 semester. (Michelle Allan/CBC)

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