December 11, 2023

A Thunder Bay clinic and health centre celebrated a century of health care delivery on Wednesday.

THUNDER BAY — A Thunder Bay health centre is celebrating its 100th anniversary, honouring its past and expressing cautious optimism for its future even in the face of serious challenges in the health care system.

The event drew dozens of former health care professionals and patients, along with current staff, to the Court Street clinic on Wednesday.

The Port Arthur Clinic was conceived in 1923 when doctors P.M. Ballantyne and Robert Harold joined John Pratt in the practice.

They opened their first location at 189 Arthur Street in Port Arthur in the depths of the post-war depression, initially offering six examining rooms and an overnight care physician health centre leaders called a precursor to modern emergency rooms.

In addition to a half-dozen family physicians, the centre now includes specialists in cardiology, dermatology, general surgery, obstetrics and gynecology, and ophthalmology, among other fields.

Dr. Chris Allison, a retiring physician who first joined the clinic over 40 years ago, called it important to pause and honour that history.

“Just being here for 100 years show the tenacity of the physicians and the staff at the Port Arthur Health Centre,” he said. “We’ve been through some bad times, great times, but we’re still here and hoping to continue to grow.”

Allison was one of four doctors who arrived from Northern Ireland in 1975, fleeing the Troubles and looking for opportunity.

Among the biggest developments he’s seen since, Allison listed off the affiliation with the regional hospital, bringing learners into the clinic, communications improvements like electronic medical records, and the decline of house calls.

He also called the advent of the Northern Ontario School of Medicine a game-changer, noting one of its graduates is set to take over his practice.

Dr. Chris Francis, and ophthalmologist and chair of the health centre’s board, called the centenary a “momentous occasion.”

He said his 30 years at the centre had been defined by remarkable technological advances that translated into better health outcomes.

“There was no such thing as injections for macular degeneration or diabetic retinopathy when I started — that has really revolutionized the care of eyes and kept people seeing and driving a lot longer in life … the cataract surgery just keeps better and better.”

He expects technology to continue driving improvements, he added.

Clinic leaders acknowledged deep-seated challenges facing the health care system like physician shortages — the centre itself currently has around 20 doctors, down from a historic peak of close to 40.

Still, Francis said he’s optimistic about the centre’s future, seeing opportunities for it to continue to evolve to meet local needs over the coming decades.

“It’s a tough time in medicine right now because it’s hard for people to find family doctors, and it’s hard for clinics to find doctors to work,” he said. “With the development of health teams … I think in the future, probably it’ll be a place where not just physicians work, but nurse practitioners, chiropractors, social workers and psychologists.

“They have these teams in other places and I think down the road, a building of this size would be a great host to such an enterprise.”

Allison agrees the centre’s evolution toward a health team model holds promise for its future.

“We try to do as much one-stop shopping as we can. We have a pharmacy, we have the lab, we’re just re-starting x-ray and bone density downstairs, and ultrasound and echocardiogram are coming; We have a dental technician, foot care, psychology provided by the NorWest [Community Health Centres].”

“The shortage of physicians right now in Canada, but also across the world, is becoming a real issue for patients. Access to care is what we’re going for… The new Ontario Health Team will hopefully help to alleviate some of that, or at least give us an idea of where the needs are.”

The current clinic building was constructed in 1965, with a second-floor addition in 1989.

The centre reorganized and changed its name from the Port Arthur Clinic in 2003.

It expanded its services through a partnership with NorWest Community Health Centres in 2019.


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