Global pandemics are just that—global. They don’t discriminate based on location, and smaller towns are certainly no exception.
Far beyond bigger cities like Toronto, Ottawa, and London, family doctors are working determinedly alongside other healthcare professionals to keep the COVID-19 pandemic at bay. Here are some of the ways they are focusing their efforts as they care for their patients and promote public health and safety.
Vaccination is a major healthcare priority for Ontario, and smaller towns like Elora are showing the province how to get it done. They use powerful resources to stay on track: family doctors.
Drs. Sarah Gower, Julie Ray, Sarah Jennison, and Fil Incitti practise, help facilitate vaccination by answering questions—or sometimes simply reassuring patients so they can overcome hesitancy.
Fortified with the support of its physicians, Elora successfully piloted an innovative drive-through vaccination clinic at the Elora Arena—an approach that helped address barriers to immunization. The results? Time saved from standing in lines, reducing duplication in data entry, and social distance measures put in place with the public remaining in their vehicles during the process.
Dr. Gower attributes Elora’s vaccination success to “strong, supported primary care that knows its residents well.”
In Ontario’s easternmost municipality of Cornwall, Dr. Ryan Hartley appreciates the diversity of medical specialties represented in his clinic, which employs doctors, nurse practitioners, dietitians, and others.
With COVID-19 straining Cornwall’s medical resources, Dr. Hartley and the team have stepped up to fill critical gaps for the community.
“We adjusted schedules and adapted processes in order to address acute issues and alleviate pressures on our community hospital, while still meeting the needs of our patients,” he says.
Dr. Leo Gnanaraj, another family doctor on the team, also acknowledges the mutual support. “When the crisis hit, it became apparent that our interprofessional team was more important than ever, and we restructured to effectively serve our community,” he says.
And on the north shore of Lake Superior, Dr. Barb Zelek, a family physician in Marathon, echoes these sentiments: “I was amazed by how different facets of primary care in Marathon were able ramp up COVID-19 testing: we went from doing two to three swabs a day to over 70. This required incredible coordination with the hospital, clinic, and all the people affiliated with both. By being able to respond and provide that volume of testing, I truly believe we were able to help prevent spread.”
For Dr. Hartley and his team in Cornwall, this is no slight commitment.
“I have been providing face-to-face appointments for high-risk clients and virtual care as needed, as well as home visits if required,” he says. “Our model of health and wellbeing supports access for everyone, no matter who they are or where they live.”
Online consultations brought about new benefits as well, notes Dr. Gnanaraj. “Virtual encounters provided me more time to speak with my patients, and their health outcomes were not compromised in any way,” he says.
Dr. Melissa Holowaty, whose family practice is based in Marmora, has made it a priority to continue to provide high-quality care despite mandated physical distancing—and to ensure service isn’t compromised for patients with long-term illnesses, or those who have limited mobility or access to technology.
“We changed to fewer appointments in general, spacing out patients so there was no overlap in the waiting room,” says Dr. Holowaty. “Lots of visits were switched to a virtual format, but only with patient consent.”
Everyone is eager to know how they can protect themselves and their loved ones from COVID-19, but many are also confused about the virus and its vaccines.
That’s why Dr. Lisa Habermehl, who practises family medicine in Red Lake, takes every opportunity to address her patients’ concerns — and her team’s generous and compassionate approach has led to impressive results as part of her community’s vaccination efforts.
To reassure patients by providing information from a trusted source, in the primary care vaccination clinic she was able to do “short MD chats in real time for those who had appointments but still had hesitancy or wanted to be sure it was ‘ok,’” Dr. Habermehl says.
The extra effort to connect one-on-one, listen to concerns, and address those concerns proves to be well worth it: “Not one single person left without their shot.”
Learn more about the work Ontario family physicians are doing to keep their patients and communities safe throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.