The Northwestern Health Unit is the most westerly situated of all Ontario's 36 public health units, serving the Kenora (part) and Rainy River Districts. The catchment area for the Northwestern Health Unit comprises 166,514 square kilometres of that area or approximately one-fifth of Ontario.
Utilizing a figure of 3757 square kilometres as the approximate size of the average southern Ontario health unit for comparision, the catchment area for the Northwestern Health Unit is equivalent to approximately 44 southern Ontario health units.
The service area consists of 19 municipalities, 40 First Nations and two unincorporated or "unoriganized" territories - Kenora Unorganized (part) and Rainy River Unorganized. If the land masses for all 19 municipalities were added together, the resultant area would approximate two average southern Ontario health unit areas.
All municipalities are connected by a system of roads. However, some First Nations communities are accessible only by air. The driving distance between most communities is over 100 kilometres, and the distance from Pickle Lake to Rainy River is 800 kilometres. The wide dispersion of these municipalities throughout the Northwestern Health Unit catchment area complicates service delivery.
The population is also widely scattered across the Northwestern Health Unit catchment area. The region is sparsely populated with a population density of approximately 0.5 people per square kilometre compared to 12.6 people per square kilometre for the province.
According to the 2001 Census (Statistics Canada), the total population of the Northwestern Health Unit service area is 77,823. The actual population of the service area is estimated to be closer to 85,000 as some First Nations were not enumerated in the 2001 census. Kenora is the largest city with a population of 15,838 people or just under 20 percent of the total population. Three communities have a population between 5,000 and 10,000 (Dryden 8,195, Fort Frances 8,103 and Sioux Lookout 5,183). This is unlike the other Ontario health units in which the majority of the catchment population is contained within a large urban centre. In addition, Kenora, with the largest percentage of the total population, is located close to the most westerly boundary of the catchment area. These conditions, combined with the distance between communities, have not supported the feasibility of centralizing Health Unit services within a single urban centre. Reaching the population is a problematic service issue for the Northwestern Health Unit.
The Northwestern Health Unit operates 14 offices in the Kenora-Rainy River District located in Kenora (two offices), Dryden, Fort Frances, Sioux Lookout, Red Lake, Atikokan, Ear Falls, Emo, Ignace, Machin, Rainy River, Sioux Narrows-Nestor Falls, and Pickle Lake.