Dermatology patients high and dry

Sarnia’s last dermatologist is no longer visiting the city, leaving thousands of patients to scramble for treatment.

Dr. A. K. Gupta had been travelling from London weekly to assist the former patients of Dr. Aurea Jose, who retired in 2011 with 5,000 people on her roster.

But Gupta stopped seeing patients in Sarnia on April 5, leaving those with skin diseases three options: drive to London or Windsor, telemedicine, or pay out-of-pocket for treatment in the U.S.

“A lot of people have skin cancer and other conditions. If they worsen, and you can’t get to those other places, what do you do?” asked Sarnia’s Linda Pickford, who is searching for answers.

She has severe dermatitis, or eczema, which is controllable with light therapy that’s no longer available here.

The Physician Recruitment Taskforce of Sarnia Lambton is tasked with attracting new family doctors. It’s the hospital that hunts for specialists, said acting physician recruiter Cindy Scholten.

Bluewater Health has been looking for a dermatologist for three years, but it’s not a high priority, said Dr. Mark Taylor, Chief of Professional Staff.

“We usually recruit for positions that the hospital needs, and for the hospital a dermatologists doesn’t really provide essential services.”

Normally, a specialist like a dermatologist is community-based and visits hospitals only as needed, he said.

“There are very few of them around and they’re hard to find. They can go where they want to live, and finding one who wants to come to Sarnia is difficult,” said Taylor, who is also the hospital’s Vice-President of Medial Affairs.

Another option is Sarnia’s tele-dermatology program, which provides long-distance medicine.

Digital photos of skin conditions are taken with a special camera and passed electronically to specialists who can make a diagnosis and offer treatment recommendations. Patients are referred by a family doctor and see a registered nurse at the hospital.

The upside of telemedicine is convenience, lower cost, reduced travel stress for patients, and the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) covers it.

“It’s not perfect but it’s better than nothing,” Taylor said.

Pickford is hoping others with skin conditions can band together to advocate for treatment in Port Huron and have OHIP pay for it.

Normally, out-of-country coverage must be prearranged and involve a life-threatening illness for which service is not available in Ontario.

“I think it is desperate,” Pickford said. “If you have a skin problem or pre-cancerous or cancerous skin and you don’t have a place to go, to me that could be live-threatening.

“If we could get over to the States it would be a bit easier.”

Pickford invites other dermatology patients to contact her at 519-542-9357.