Farmers urge government to invest in rural healthcare

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by Jackie Kelly-Pemberton, Director, OFA

Healthcare affects all Ontarians and regardless of where we live in this province, its services and resources are something we all depend on from time to time.

The provincial healthcare system has long had its challenges but as we’ve all seen, those have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic as well as our growing population. Those problems are common to all Ontarians, but the impacts in rural Ontario are even more acute.

My family and I farm near Winchester, south of Ottawa, and although we have a wonderful clinic and smalltown hospital in our local area, we’ve always had to go to larger urban centres to access specialists, higher level testing and certain treatments, such as when I went through cancer diagnosis and treatment in the last several years.

Our community has also always worked hard to ensure that we support our hospital, such as coming together to fundraise for our new mammogram machine.

What is happening with more alarming frequency now is rural hospitals having to temporarily – and sometimes even permanently – close their emergency rooms because of lack of staff or resources. And as rural doctors and other healthcare providers retire, it is becoming harder to attract those professionals to our rural communities, even as our communities grow and require additional resources.

Although it’s not directly a farm issue, access to health care in rural areas is critical – access for us as patients to emergency rooms, staff and doctors, and for hospitals and clinics to be able to access innovation, technology and workers to properly treat residents in their service areas.

Rural healthcare is also part of the bigger issue of rural economic development. Since the pandemic, more Ontarians are moving to rural areas or smaller hub communities and one of the big criteria is access to healthcare. For those communities themselves, the better their infrastructure, the better able they are to attract and retain healthcare professionals.

Last fall, delegates at the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) annual convention passed a resolution that our organization work with other provincial health care stakeholders to urge the Ontario government to act more quickly and decisively in filling staffing gaps within the provincial healthcare system, and support legislation, tools, and activities to improve access to healthcare.

Since then, OFA has written to Ontario Health Minister Sylvia Jones to raise awareness of the rural healthcare issue. Last winter, we focused on rural healthcare and the importance of taking steps to address its challenges during our Queen’s Park advocacy day where we met with MPPs of all parties. We communicated the urgency of labour shortages and the heightened risk to rural Ontario posed by emergency room closures.

We’ve asked the provincial government to prioritize filling staffing gaps and making funding available to leverage innovation, technology and evaluate new patient care approaches and models that have been successful in other communities.

We’ve also encouraged government to better support long-term care services across rural and northern Ontario by recruiting and retaining skilled labour and establishing adequate, predictable and stable direct care funding for these facilities.

Current challenges aside, I do want to take this opportunity to thank the healthcare professionals in our system today. The work that you do is hard but so very valuable and I can say that from my own experience with my cancer treatments, that I received wonderful care and compassion from the medical staff charged with looking after me.

We know that there is a lot to be done to support the future of our healthcare system and that healthcare is not the only priority file the government is tasked with addressing. However, as our population both grows and ages, the demands on healthcare in Ontario will only increase and our existing challenges and shortcomings will only become more acute.

Government investments into rural infrastructure such as our hospitals will support the health of our communities and the sustainability of future generations of farmers. Many of the most impactful solutions take time to implement and work to their best capacities, so the time to start is now.

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