Critical healthcare shortages in Sioux Lookout region
We are a group of doctors in Sioux Lookout who, in working through this pandemic, have seen the progressive and severe strain under which our healthcare system is operating. Our current system is not keeping up with the needs of our region and this must be a top election issue. Patients and their families in the region are likely aware of the ongoing long wait times for family doctor visits, ER wait times, and have been frustrated by lack of continuity of care. Our local hospital, once staffed by a cohort of local physicians and nurses with expertise in the regional health systems, culture and clinical care, is now often staffed with visiting physicians and agency nurses. With strained resources across the province, even short-term contracts or locum programs cannot keep up with local demands. We are so grateful to have the support of these providers but short-term contracts are meant to fill temporary gaps in service, not to sustain an ongoing function of a hospital.
Burnout is now a familiar story with headlines across the country highlighting this crisis. Sioux Lookout is no exception, however, has the added disadvantage that we have no capacity to recruit and retain to our more remote setting, when better paying jobs are available further afield and current workloads locally are unsustainably high. Allied health, such as pharmacy services, laboratory technicians and respiratory therapists, among others, is also experiencing extreme staff shortages.
While other communities have had a spotlight on them after having to close their Emergency Department, the health sector in Sioux Lookout has also been struggling. Health care workers are picking up extra shifts constantly to try and keep essential services going. There’s no easy back up plan; regional centres like Thunder Bay do not have the capacity to absorb patient care if our system fails, nor is care further away what patients deserve.
As we look to the upcoming election, we need to see policies and promises that address these issues in the short and long term. We need to create sustainable working conditions. As an example of a necessary policy change is to repeal Bill 124 passed in 2019 by the Ford government. This restricts public sector compensation with a cap in salary increases to 1% per 3 years (which is below the rate of inflation), and imposes collective bargaining limitations. If we value accessing healthcare, we must value the work our frontline staff is doing. We must have competitive wages to recruit and retain staff. We need to increase training opportunities for healthcare learners. We need to address the underlying social factors that lead to burden of disease disproportionately in our rural and First Nations communities: work toward providing adequate housing, clean water, education, childcare. And more broadly, support community development initiatives that benefit the local People.
We do not want to see the day that Sioux Lookout has to close health services, but this is a very real threat. We ask that you demand this of your election candidates and get out to vote.
Drs. Megan Bollinger, Mary England and Yoko Schreiber; Sioux Lookout Physicians
(The opinions expressed in this letter are those of the authors only. The authors do not speak for the institutions
they work in).