The doctor shortage is slowly improving across Ontario, but that is small comfort to the many people still struggling to find one. A new study indicating that some doctors choose patients in a way that favors those with higher incomes is certain to increase the frustration levels of many of those doctorless patients. And it should.
The study, which appeared in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, found that wealthier patients were 50 per cent more likely to get taken on as a new patient by doctors than welfare recipients -- or at least researchers posing as them. Its author, Dr. Stephen Hwang, notes that since the research involved talking to receptionists or assistants it is not clear whether they were responding to their own biases or instructions from physicians, but it still represents a barrier because potential patients must go through staff to see a doctor.
The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario passed a policy in 2008 forbidding patient screening. It has told physicians that they must take new patients on a first-come, first-served basis, except in exceptional circumstances. Physicians, for example, can refuse patients if their medical needs are beyond their clinical competence or scope of practice. Physicians can also, according to the College, prioritize patients on the basis of need, something Hwang's study suggests is happening. Those posing as patients with chronic health conditions as part of the study were more likely to receive an appointment than those without. ...
But the real issue is the ongoing doctor shortage in Ontario and across the country, which creates a necessity to ration care. Until that becomes a thing of the past -- and that will not be for the foreseeable future -- all Canadians must have the best assurance possible that they'll have a chance to find a doctor when they need one.
Ottawa (Ontario) Citizen