Doctors offered an incentive to connect with new patients

The province says that 500,000 Ontarians can’t find a family doctor and is hoping to change that.

The Ontario Medical Association ratified a contract with the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care last fall. Included in that contract are incentives for physicians who accept new patients into their practice – up to $350 for those with complex health conditions.

Through a new program called Health Care Connect, Ontarians can register and obtain referrals to physicians in their area. A care connector with their local Community Care Access Centre will attempt to find a physician and provide the patient with the information. Doctors who have openings in their practice can also register with the care connector.

Minister of Health and Long-Term Care David Caplan unveiled the new Health Care Options website last month, urging people to seek out family physicians and ambulatory care clinics rather than choosing to visit emergency departments for non-emergent care.

“When Ontarians are sick or hurt, their first instinct might be to go to an emergency room,” Caplan said. “This service will help them get the care they need, faster and closer to home.”

But the new measures aren’t appealing to everyone. Some critics complain that the new Health Care Connect registry does not provide any guarantees and the website itself encourages users to continue searching for a doctor on their own.

The program offers an online directory of family healthcare providers that currently lists over 700 doctors in Toronto, but calls by the to the first 25 search results yielded no success in finding a doctor accepting new patients.

Elaine Tucker hasn’t had a family doctor for over 10 years. In the past three years she has been seen at two local emergency departments for non-urgent complaints and specialist referrals .

She feels the directory is of little help to her because it contains the information already available on the College of Physician and Surgeons of Ontario website, and that information has not helped her find a family doctor.

“I’ve lived in three cities over five years and couldn’t find a doctor in either one,” Tucker, a former nurse, said. “If I get sick and end up in a walk-in clinic, they tell me to follow up with my family doctor, but I can’t find one.”

To receive the “fee enhancement,” doctors must participate in a specific enrolment procedure arranged with the OMA. Tucker is hoping the new incentives, which are part of a $340-million package included in the OMA’s new contract with the province, will encourage doctors to expand their practices. But she says it can be a double-edged sword.

“If a doctor is already stretched too thin, they don’t spend enough time with the patients they already have,”  Tucker said. “What’s the point of having a doctor if you only see them for five minutes every month? That’s not enough time to discuss problems even if you’re healthy.”

Mark Nesbitt, a spokesperson for the Ministry, believes that the incentives won’t impact the level of care current patients receive.

“It’s going to be up to the doctor to figure out what they can do while still providing an appropriate level of service,” Nesbitt said. “We’re counting on physicians to know how many patients they can accommodate.”

Filed by Lara Willis