Last summer, I traveled to Northern Ontario with my colleague Amanda Sauvé to complete an elective in remote family medicine. After driving 1,300 kilometers and crossing many moose charging warnings, we pulled off the TransCanada highway and arrived at our destination: a town of 4,700 people in the Thunder Bay District, with fewer than two persons per square kilometer.
I had never been somewhere so remote; the next gas station was a forty-five minute drive away! I was stunned by the vast landscape of sparkling lakes and lush forestry. For the first time, I witnessed the majesty of moose and drove within meters of black bears. Despite being within my own province, this territory felt so foreign to me. It was so peaceful to be away from the hustle and bustle of urban living and to feel immersed within nature. At the same time, it felt eerily quiet and isolating. I was beginning to grasp the meaning of ‘remote’ that our peers at NOSM can appreciate.
We resided in the old nurses’ quarters adjacent to the town’s small hospital, the only hospital within a 180-kilometer radius. Three permanent family physicians and the occasional locum operate the hospital’s inpatient ward, its emergency department and the neighboring family medicine clinic. I formed my impression of health care in remote Ontario by working with these welcoming physicians, engaging with their patients and meeting with community members from a nearby First Nations reserve.
Unsurprisingly, a major barrier to accessing healthcare was geography. Back home in London, Ontario, patients can see specialists locally, and urgent CT scans and MRIs can be obtained in a flash. Conversely, in this remote town, the closest tertiary care center where these resources are available is over three hours away by car, or an hour by helicopter. We could arrange telemedicine appointments if physical examinations were not required, but otherwise, the commute to Thunder Bay was inevitable – as were the astronomical gas prices this commute entails.
Distance to amenities and associated travel costs are only two of many social determinants of health that differ up North. Employment opportunities are scarce, and small businesses struggle to survive in such low-density populations. Although housing is cheaper, it is unaffordable for many families to heat their homes comfortably in the wintertime, with temperatures dropping as low as a frigid minus forty degrees Celsius. Average monthly grocery costs are more than twice the cost in urban Ontario.1
My heart sunk at the realization that many small towns had one overpriced corner store (if any) for people to buy food, yet every town, without exception, had a liquor store. I was also deeply affected by two major public health issues in remote Northern Ontario: substance use and access to mental health services.
Regarding the former, the so-called ‘opioid epidemic’ is an inadequately addressed issue across the province, and it is particularly so in Northern Ontario. Typically, a methadone clinic provides patients with one dose per day and gradually increases the number of doses patients are allowed to take home (known as ‘carries’) as patients demonstrate that they do not divert their medicine to others. Where I worked, many patients live forty-five minutes from the methadone clinic, making daily pick-ups unfeasible for a working individual or for patients without a vehicle. As such, patients could be given a full week’s carries without undergoing the usual process of demonstrating reliability. Consequently, methadone in the area was frequently diverted, as was apparent by urine drug tests in the emergency department. Two patients have died from methadone overdose within the past couple of years at this site; in such a small population, this number is alarming.
Patients with substance use disorders or any other mental health concern have a right to reasonably accessible services under the Canada Health Act, yet patients can be forced to travel three hours or further to see a psychiatrist. The lack of mental health services is particularly apparent in the Emergency Department. For suicidal patients who are safe for discharge, it is a struggle to arrange appropriate follow up given the shortage of counseling and social work services and the distance patients may need to travel to see a family physician or psychiatrist. I remember my preceptor and I sent a teenager home with a prescription for an antidepressant and uncertain follow up, and I wondered concernedly, “Is anything going to change for her?” As for psychiatric patients who are not safe for discharge, they must be transferred to the nearest Schedule 1 facility. This means that their recovery will take place about 300 kilometers from their home and families. I can only imagine how unfamiliar that environment can feel without having a nearby support network.
Overall, in my experience, many physicians and patients up North enjoy the lifestyle and pace that the area offers. On the other hand, they often feel ignored or overlooked by government with regards to their health. Now that I have witnessed their system first hand, I feel the same way. If I felt helpless and infuriated during my brief remote medicine stint, I can only imagine how strongly that fire burns within those who live and work within that system every day. A passion to help change these circumstances has ignited within me; even though I am over a thousand kilometers away today, I have a social responsibility to keep that flame alive. I feel guilty that I cannot envision a full-time career for myself so far from where I call home. However, I can hold myself accountable by at least practicing as a locum and by advocating for technological advances and health care reform that may improve the care of these patients.
I encourage all medical students to take the initiative to plan an experience in remote medicine. Even as a pre-clerk, you can be a valuable asset to an understaffed team and underserviced patient population. Furthermore, I urge my fellow medical students in urban settings to care about the challenges faced by our peers and patients in remote settings and to join me in advocating for their health.
1. Source: Food Secure Canada. Paying For Nutrition: A Report on Food Costing in the North. 2016. Available from: https://foodsecurecanada.org/sites/foodsecurecanada.org/files/201609_paying_for_nutrition_fsc_report_final.pdf