Family doctors in Alberta are stressed out, and often move out.
They feel like mice on a wheel, racing to do the job so they can pay the bills and earn their income while still serving their patients well.
A new study by a doctors’ advisory panel shows vividly that Alberta is not a desirable place to be a doctor in a primary care practice.
There are many causes, but one is the lingering reputation hit from the UCP’s shocking cancellation of the physicians’ pay deal in 2020.
Among family doctors who graduated from Alberta schools between 2015 and 2019, only 62.7 per cent registered to practise here in 2021.
Of that group, 18.3 per cent went to B.C. and 14.5 per cent to Ontario.
Retention rates in other provinces are much higher; 84.7 per cent in Ontario, 78.1 per cent in B.C., 74.4 per cent in Quebec and 72.2 per cent in Manitoba.
A report in March this year showed 42 unfilled residency positions in family medicine.
British Columbia had two vacant spots, Saskatchewan none.
One wonderful young doctor was working as a locum in a Calgary family clinic. Asked if she’d stay with the practice, she said no, she’s moving with her family to Australia.
For many months after the chaos of COVID-19 and the betrayal of the pay deal, the UCP government liked to claim things were fine, more doctors were coming in than moving out.
Some do arrive. Health Minister Adriana LaGrange said Wednesday that there are 109 new family doctors.
But many others are being lost to family medicine without leaving home.
Doctors are retiring early, or giving up family practice to focus on specific medical niches where there’s less stress.
Every medical system in Canada is pressured but ours faces problems the UCP actively caused.
They broke the system. Now they have to fix the system.
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Despite continuing bloopers — especially the lab testing fiasco — there are positive signs for primary care.
LaGrange announced major changes Wednesday, including the creation of a primary health division within Alberta Health. For the first time, the family sector will have a direct voice in government.
Major steps were announced to improve Indigenous health care and defeat racism in the wider system.
Family care docs and nurse practitioners will be eligible for up to $10,000 a year to help manage their administration and influx of patients.
All the actions result from wide consultation with family physicians, Indigenous care experts, AHS and government.
Two years ago the doctors and the government weren’t talking at all — they were shouting. LaGrange seems determined to put all that in the past.
Doctors have begged for years to be included in any talks about major change. They were completely shut out twice, during former premier Ralph Klein’s era, and again with ex-premier Jason Kenney and his health minister, Tyler Shandro.
Both times the deep freeze brought chaos. Now, LaGrange seems determined not to make the same mistake.
Nobody in Alberta has been more critical of system problems and the government than Dr. Paul Parks, a Medicine Hat emergency physician who recently took over as president of the Alberta Medical Association.
“The last three years or so have been disastrous on the health-care system,” he said in an interview.
“We have to be blunt and honest about that. But I am optimistic and hopeful that this government currently, and this minister are going to take that time to act and are learning from the past.”
Parks says he’s already had positive meetings with LaGrange. He was pleased with elements of Wednesday’s announcement.
But he says the big overall changes — especially in pay for family doctors — are needed soon, as early as next spring’s provincial budget. Otherwise, the problems will be dangerously entrenched.
Parks feels the province has to move away from fee-for-service payment to a system that compensates doctors based on the needs of their overall panel of patients.
This creates much more flexibility for treating complex patients and involves other practitioners, such as nurse practitioners.
A move in that direction was promised Wednesday, without a timeline.
Albertans have heard a lot of health-care vows over the years. This time they truly must be kept.
Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald