More than 170,000 patients in Ontario lost their family doctors in the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic, a new study has found.

The study, led by Unity Health Toronto and non-profit research institute ICES, found the number of family physicians who stopped working doubled between March and September 2020 compared to the same time period the previous year.

This equals nearly three per cent of Ontario’s practicing family physicians, officials said.

On average, between April and September from 2010 through to 2019, researchers say about 1.6 per cent of family physicians stopped work.

“Nearly 1.8 million Ontarians don’t have a regular family physician,” Dr. Tara Kiran, lead author of the study and a family physician at St. Michael’s Hospital of Unity Health Toronto, said in a statement.

“Our findings suggest things are only going to get worse, which is really concerning because family medicine is the front door to our health system.”

The study found that about 385 of 12,000 physicians stopped their practice, and that those who did were more likely to be aged 75 or older and care for under 500 patients.

The findings also suggest that many of these doctors were approaching retirement and accelerated their plans during the pandemic.

The study emphasizes that it cannot prove that the pandemic was a direct cause of the exodus and cites other possible reasons such as health concerns, increased practice costs due to infection prevention and control measures, drop in revenue due to reduction in visits and burnout.

“More research is needed to understand the long-standing impact on primary care attachment and access to care and the broader impact on population health,” the study says.

The researchers also noted that while 385 physicians doesn’t appear to be that many when looking at the overall number of family doctors in Ontario, “over half of the physicians who stopped working had patients formally enrolled on their roster, and estimated the physicians cared for more than 170,000 patients.”

“The shortage of family physicians and other primary care providers is a complex Canada-wide problem related to aging of physicians and patients, increasing patient and system complexity, declining interest in family medicine among medical school graduates, and misdistribution of the workforce, especially affecting rural areas,” Dr. Rick Glazier, co-author of the study, said in a statement.

“These pre-existing factors have been exacerbated by the pandemic and call for fundamental changes in how we are organized, paid, supported, and deliver care.”

As a result, the researchers are calling for a re-evaluation of the payment model for family doctors, saying the model needs to create a more predictable income and provide doctors with flexibility. They also suggest expanding primary care teams to include other health professionals, including social workers, pharmacists and nurses.