When Dr. Jaclyn Vanek moved to Peterborough about five years ago, she went looking for the city’s community health centre.
Vanek was newly graduated from medical school, and she’d come to Peterborough to complete her residency. During her studies in Ottawa, Vanek had worked at the Centretown Community Health Centre, where she had the opportunity to serve some of that city’s most marginalized residents. She liked the centre’s collaborative approach, which brought together a range of health professionals to meet patients’ complex health needs.
So it was only natural that Vanek would try to find something similar in Peterborough. But she couldn’t. “I just assumed everywhere had a CHC,” Vanek said. “So I looked around and I was like, ‘Where’s the CHC?’”
Ontario has dozens of community health centres operating in more than 100 locations all over the province. But Vanek quickly found out she had moved to one of the few Ontario cities without one.
Now, a local coalition of healthcare leaders is trying to address that gap. They’re pushing the provincial government to provide $8.2 million in new annual funding to open a community health centre (CHC) in Peterborough that would serve up to 6,000 marginalized patients who do not have a family doctor.
The coalition shared the details of their proposal at a public information session last month at the Peterborough Lions Club that was attended by about 30 people.
The funding request comes at a politically opportune moment. The Ford government announced new funding to connect people with primary care in its spring budget, earmarking $60 million over two years for new or expanded primary care teams in communities “with the greatest need.” The province has invited groups to submit proposals on how they’d use the money, with a decision expected from the Ministry of Health later this year.
The need couldn’t be greater in Peterborough, according to Vanek, who has become a vocal supporter of the plan to open a CHC in her adopted city and spoke about the need for one at last month’s information session. She now works at an addiction clinic at the Peterborough Regional Health Centre and provides part-time coverage for family doctors in Peterborough and Northern Ontario. Every day she works with marginalized people in the city who are in “desperate need” of the primary care that a CHC would provide, she said.
“Peterborough has a primary care crisis that is affecting the entire community,” she told the crowd gathered at the Lions Club. “It is overburdening our emergency department, crowding our hospital beds, and it is also burning out many of our practicing family physicians as they struggle to deal with the work overload.”
Ontario’s community health centres started in the 1960s and 70s
Ontario’s first community health centres opened their doors in the 1960s and 1970s as a pilot project of the Progressive Conservative government of the day, according to the group Alliance for Healthier Communities. The network of health centres was further expanded across the province by NDP and Liberal governments in the 1990s and early 2000s.
The non-profit centres were inspired by the ideas of medicare-founder Tommy Douglas, and are run by a board of directors elected by the community, according to Alliance for Healthier Communities. Social justice is at the core of how the centres operate, with a focus on serving the most marginalized – including people with mental health and addiction challenges, people experiencing homelessness, newcomers, racialized people and the 2SLGBTQ+ community.
The goal is to not only treat people when they get sick, but to help them stay well in the first place, according to the group. To that end, CHCs across the province offer a broad range of services besides visits with a family doctor or nurse practitioner, including trans health programs, sexual health testing, diabetes care, counselling, parenting education, and harm reduction services.
It’s “inexplicable” that the CHC model has not yet come to Peterborough, given how many there are across the province and the high level of need in the city, according to the group behind the proposal.
Currents has seen a version of the proposal, which is expected to be submitted to Ontario’s health ministry later this month. It stresses that the Peterborough region is facing a dire shortage of family doctors, which is leaving an estimated 13,000 people or more without a primary care provider and exacerbating health problems like the drug poisoning crisis.
The CHC would help fill those gaps by creating a team of 10 physicians and nurse practitioners. But that’s not all: there would also be other health professionals including pharmacists, counsellors, a dietician, a physiotherapist, a psychologist, a social worker, and an Indigenous traditional healer, according to the proposal.
The centre would also have a food bank, and showers and laundry on site to “build trusting relationships with individuals who are fearful of medical care.” Patients would have the chance to join support groups on different topics, such as pain management, living with diabetes, and smoking cessation.
Local MPP Dave Smith “a strong supporter” of CHC proposal
Progressive Conservative MPP Dave Smith, who represents the riding of Peterborough-Kawartha, did not attend the recent CHC information session, but Currents interviewed him by phone after the event. He said he has been a “strong supporter” of the plan to open a community health centre in Peterborough “since its inception.”
“It’s one of those things that this community really, really needs,” he said.
It will ultimately be up to Ontario’s minister of health to decide how the $60 million announced this spring will be spent — and which communities will see some of that money. Sylvia Jones is the minister of health right now, and Smith said he has written to her in support of Peterborough’s health centre application, and has had a “number of conversations” with her about it.
“My argument is that we’re the largest geographic area right now in Ontario that doesn’t have a CHC,” he said. “So obviously, there’s a need for it.”
“I had completely lost my smile”
The nearby town of Port Hope has had a community health centre since 2009.
Michelle Carr first visited the centre at a low point in her life seven years ago and since then it has become a lifeline for her.
Carr, who told her story at the recent information session, lives with Schizophrenia and was not receiving any medical treatment for the condition before she became a patient at the centre. She was “spiraling out of control” and struggling to take care of herself, to the point that she didn’t brush her teeth for five years, she said. “I had completely lost my smile.”
After one of her teeth cracked and fell out one morning, she said she knew she had to get help. That’s when she found out about the dental clinic at the Community Health Centres of Northumberland, located in Port Hope. The staff welcomed her and made her feel safe, she said, and after extensive dental work, she could finally smile again.
But her visits to the centre didn’t stop there. Her trust in the staff had grown by that point and she began accessing other services there. She joined a cooking class, started going to the centre’s food cupboard, and attended a mindfulness workshop. And after finally receiving psychiatric help, she began getting her medication at the centre every month.
Carr described the last seven years since joining the health centre as the best years of her life.
“Everyone there knows me by name and doesn’t judge me for my mental illness,” she said. “I was always helped and brought forward and made to feel like I had a purpose just by existing.”
Carr said the community health centre has become a “beacon of hope” for many in her small town, and she said she’s convinced that the same kind of service would have a positive impact for people needing support in Peterborough.
“For years I just needed help and didn’t know where to go,” she said. “One thing that I have learned is that if the resources are there, we will all eventually find our way.”
Centre would attract doctors to the region, proponents say
A community health centre in Peterborough would also entice more doctors to move to the area, according to those behind the proposal.
Many doctors don’t want to run their own practice, but there are few other options if you want to be a family doctor in this city — and that’s turning potential recruits away from Peterborough, according to Vanek. “Most early-career doctors would prefer to focus on practicing medicine, and not all the extra administrative work of running a business.”
A community health centre would offer an attractive alternative for doctors considering a move to Peterborough, Vanek said. Instead of having to manage a practice, doctors at the centre would be paid a regular salary while administrative staff would handle day-to-day operations, allowing doctors to focus on providing care, she said.
“We need a CHC to allow incoming family doctors, nurse practitioners and allied health-care providers to set up shop in Peterborough,” she said.
The CHC’s potential to attract new doctors is one of its biggest benefits, according to Smith. He also believes it would alleviate some of the pressure on PRHC, which he said has one of the busiest emergency departments in the province.
CHCs tend to serve “very complex medical individuals who currently are not receiving primary care,” he said. “Those tend to be people who then show up at the emergency department more often with more complicated problems when they get there.”
Smith acknowledged there will be stiff competition for the $60 million in new funding, because every region in the province faces pressures on their health care systems. “One of the challenges [is that] there’s 124 MPPs who are all trying to make the same case [for funding],” he said.
Peterborough’s request represents more than a quarter of the money that’s on the table for the whole province.
“I’m hoping that we continue having positive conversations with the minister,” Smith said, “and that even if we’re not successful in this first round … we have the ability then to make adjustments to the proposal so that we’re in a better position as we move forward.”