Haliburton Highlands Health Services (HHHS) opened its virtual primary care clinic May 17 to help serve people without family doctors.

The clinic provides access to a regular doctor remotely through an Ontario Telemedicine Network video session. A nurse will assist in person to monitor the patient. The clinic will open two days a week in Minden and is available to anyone who lacks a family doctor living in Haliburton County.

HHHS vice president of community programs Stephanie MacLaren said it helps address the lack of primary care available in Haliburton.

“Primary capacity, in our community, similar to other, small, rural, communities, has been challenged,” MacLaren said. “We have more of a demand for primary care than we have supply.”

Haliburton Highlands Family Health Team executive director Kimberley Robinson said their waitlist for a doctor is approximately 1,000 people. Patients are taken based on the date of their request, with the list now at people who submitted in 2017.

The model began about five years ago, according to Virtual Family Physician Network director Sam Berman. He said it has run successfully in Midland, Campbellford, Peterborough and Smiths Falls, providing a stopgap as communities recruit doctors.

He said primary care is a fundamental human right, and telemedicine was a way to provide that more widely.

It helps “communities right across central Ontario, almost all of which have shortages of family physicians,”

Berman said. “We provide a full range of services a family doctor is supposed to provide.” Berman said ideally, a municipality recruits enough doctors, so it is not needed anymore. The County of Haliburton is trying to address that, hiring a full-time physician recruiter who helped bring two new ER doctors in 2020.

But in the meantime, doctors will see the same patients regularly. Berman added they will coordinate with local health resources. Doctors are also encouraged to visit their communities for a week or two to meet patients.

“We don’t see this with other models of virtual primary care, and that is his absolute commitment to collaborating with local family physicians,” MacLaren said. “His goal is to work himself out of a job.”

There are limitations, such as not treating infants, but Berman said the accompanying nurse is there to help with most things.

“We can probably do 85 per cent of what a family doctor could do if they were there in person,” Berman said.

The clinic will be open for two half-days per week by appointment only, Monday and Wednesday, though MacLaren said that could change based on demand. Appointments can be booked by contacting 705-457-2941 ext. 2294.

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