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Expanding private Ontario clinics will only exacerbate hospital staffing shortages, doctors’ college warns

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Hospital staffing shortages will be exacerbated and the wait times for urgent care will grow if the Ford government expands the use of privately operated clinics amid a COVID-19 surgical backlog, the regulatory body for Ontario doctors says.

The warning from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario comes after Premier Doug Ford told reporters on Wednesday that the province needs to have “independent centres” in order to “take the burden and backlog off hospitals.”

Ford did seem to insist that the centres wouldn’t take resources away from hospitals because they would be staffed by the “same doctors going in on their spare time.”

However, in a statement provided to CP24 on Friday the registrar and CEO of the college Dr. Nancy Whitmore warned that any expansion of the use of private surgical centres would create challenges for hospitals which are already struggling to keep up with surging patient volumes.

“Many months ago, we were consulted and shared our opinion that stand-alone surgical centers need to be connected to the hospital system to ensure continuity of care and patient safety. We also shared that this wasn’t the solution to the health care crisis and would further tax our health Human Resources shortages and further increase wait times for more urgent hospital-based care,” she said. “We have not recently been engaged in the conversation and were not informed that this was being announced or implemented.”

A surgery is performed in the operating room in Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children on Wednesday, November 30, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

There are already 13 private surgical centres operating in Ontario and Ford insisted this week that the model is already working “to take the burden off hospitals.”

He did not say whether the province is considering opening up additional centres or expanding the use of the existing centres, though a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health told CP24 on Friday that it would "have more to share early next week."

"I have talked to many doctors. One told me he doesn’t have operating room time and was told by his boss he should go golfing instead. But he wants to help people and earn more income,” Ford said Wednesday. “People don’t care where they have to go as long as they have the same regulations and the same top-notch doctors that are working in hospitals and may have extra hours. They can knock off simple stuff – knee replacements, hip replacements, cataracts - these are no-brainers that are backlogging the healthcare system."

The Ontario Medical Association has previously advocated for the creation of "integrated ambulatory centres" affiliated with hospitals in order to help address the COVID-19 surgical backlog, which has grown to more than one million procedures.

But Ontario Nurses Association has spoken out against the use of private surgical clinics and has said that any expansion of the model “will line the pockets of investors, nothing more.”

On Friday Dr. Bob Bell, who is a former CEO of the University Health Network, told CP24 that research has shown that conducting surgeries in purpose built community centres can increase the number of procedures that can be conducted by as much as 25 per cent. But he said that those centres should still be operated by hospitals.

“Half of what the premier and the minister is proposing is excellent. We do need to move more surgeries out of Ontario hospitals and into purpose built community surgeries. But what we shouldn't be doing is taking surgery out of the internationally acclaimed Ontario hospital system and put it into the hands of private for-profits. Our hospitals are recognized around the world for the excellence in their outcomes. Why would we want to lose that?”

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