December 10, 2023

The Port Arthur Health Centre has reached a milestone with celebrations underway for its 100th anniversary.

In 1923, the founding doctors began the first Port Arthur Clinic located on Red River Road with a focus on a philosophy of providing good medicine and good service. In 1963, the clinic relocated to its current location at the corner of River and Algoma streets and continued to maintain a mission to “offer quality patient care and services with a commitment to excellence.”

Dr. Chris Allison arrived at the clinic from the unrest in Belfast, Ireland, with three other physicians to help alleviate the doctor shortage in 1975.

“It was like a respite for me coming to Thunder Bay. It’s an awesome city and the clinic just literally took us in,” he said.

At that time, there was a pharmacy, an onsite laboratory and an X-ray system. Today the clinic operates with 19 doctors and services upwards of 500 patients each day.

Allison says the game changer in technological developments is the development of electronic medical records.

“It has made it a lot easier to (share) information with other physicians and for continuity of care as opposed to paper charts back in the old days where we had to find who did what and when,” he said, adding the Ontario Laboratory Information System is useful.

John Marrello, the health centre’s chief executive officer, says physicians practised differently back in the 1930s and 1940s.

“They did everything, surgery, family practice. It was all combined,” he said.

“Over the years the clinic evolved into a place where you have your specialists and you have your family physicians, and the actual clinic has expanded (to a second storey) around 1998.”

Marrello agrees with Allison that the game changer at the clinic is the implementation of electronic medical records.

“That’s a huge implementation for physicians and the way they practice,” he said. “Now they get information directly from the hospital, from labs from the Ontario laboratory system, and access is there for all these things.”

What hasn’t changed is the ongoing shortage of doctors, a challenge that is met daily by the health centre.

“I think it’s actually gotten worse with the family physicians,” Marrello said.

“Over the last number of years, a number of physicians have retired and the number of doctors that have opened up practices have not kept up with that pace. In some cases, if you do have a physician that opens up a practice, they don’t take on the same number of patients as the older physicians used to have.”

He pointed out they speculate between 20,000 to 30,000 “unattached” patients in Thunder Bay are without a family doctor.

Ophthalmologist, Dr. Chris Francis, has been with the health centre for almost 30 years and has seen game-changing improvements in the last 10 years with technology involving macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy and cataract surgeries. He also notices how the doctor shortage impacts the clinic.

“Manpower is a huge problem,” he said.

“I think organizationally things in health care are evolving and changing so that it’s becoming more multidisciplinary in nature. I believe that for this clinic to thrive down the road, it’ll have to have funding models and allow in other parts of the province that incorporate all the different practitioners like nurse practitioners, social workers, psychologists or chiropractors. They could all come under a system.”

He added that the organization for that needs to be funded.

“Our clinic is going through a transition for sure. We used to have three times as many family doctors as we do now, and for this clinic, we need to attract more family practice doctors. Ideally, they would come with nurse practitioners and the associated services.”

Marrello, meanwhile, called the health centre “one-stop shopping “ for their many patients which includes the pharmacy, lab, dental hygienist, diagnostic X-rays, ophthalmology, general practice and NuView radiology and ultrasound. The clinic works with Northwest Community Healthcare Centre, which provides counselling and footcare services.

Marrello said they hope to see the health centre continue growing.

“There’s a number of new initiatives that we’re planning and we just hope that we can continue to grow and keep this clinic going for the next 100 years, just the way it’s been operated for the last 100.”


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