March 2, 2024


Booking Travel

61% of family physicians in Alberta considering leaving provincial health-care system: Report

More than 60 per cent of Alberta’s family physicians are considering leaving the Alberta health-care system, a new report published by ThinkHQ suggests.

The report, which was commissioned by the Alberta Medical Association (AMA), suggested approximately 91 per cent of the 1,375 family doctors surveyed are concerned about the financial viability of their practices. Of those, around 52 per cent said they are very concerned.

Around 57 per cent of family doctors surveyed characterized the current financial health of their medical practices as “poor,” while eight per cent of family doctors said their practices are performing well financially. Twenty per cent of family doctors believed their practices are unlikely to be financially viable beyond six months.

ThinkHQ said financial strains are most common among physicians whose practices are partially or completely community-based, which means they are not part of Alberta Health Services.

Story continues below advertisement

The financial pressures are taking a toll on family physicians. Around 61 per cent of the family doctors surveyed said they are considering leaving the Alberta health-care system. Of those, 38 per cent are considering early retirement, a majority of those are longer-tenured physicians (practicing for more than 25 years).

Click to play video: 'As Canada’s health systems strain, more private care would mark ‘deterioration:’ minister'

As Canada’s health systems strain, more private care would mark ‘deterioration:’ minister

The report also suggests 48 per cent of newer physicians (practicing less than 10 years) are considering moving out of Alberta.

“Our entire health care system is at stake. Because if you don’t fix primary care, it’s impossible to address the issues in acute care or continuing care or mental health and addictions care,” said Dr. Paul Parks, president of the AMA, at a news conference on Tuesday.

“I would say to Albertans that it’s time to be worried. If you’re lucky enough to have a family doctor, odds are quite high that your practice and your family physician may have to make changes to their practice to stay viable.

Story continues below advertisement

“We’re calling on the government to take immediate steps to halt further damage to primary care.”

Get the latest Health IQ news.

Sent to your email, every week.

This comes after a report published last October showed a record number of Albertans looking for a family doctor in 2023.

Around 923,542 people visited the Alberta Find a Doctor website between April 2022 and March 2023, said Primary Care Networks. That is a 29-per cent increase compared with the same period in 2022, when 716,613 people visited the website.

This is also an increase of more than 168 per cent since the same period in 2021 and a more than 428-per cent increase since the same period in 2020.

Primary Care Networks’ report also said the total number of doctors taking new patients in Alberta has also declined. Only 190 doctors in Alberta were taking new patients in May 2023, a drop from 390 in May 2022.

Parks told reporters Alberta is still using an “antiquated” fee-for-service model, which means patients will be charged for everything the physician does. Parks said the model does not work when physicians try to do comprehensive and complex care, and provinces such as Manitoba, B.C. and Saskatchewan have moved away from that model.

Family physicians in Alberta are billing around $340,000 a year and paying over $250,000 to $260,000 a year to start their business, according to Parks.

Story continues below advertisement

“It should be stated that this has been brewing and growing for probably over ten years,” Parks told reporters. “The other provinces around us have all made major massive investments in primary care and in how they fund primary care to move away from that fee-for-service model.

“We are absolutely at an Alberta disadvantage at this point in time for our family’s medicine practices … We have practices that are looking at closing right now because they can’t pay their staff and pay their overhead.”

Parks added the AMA has proposed a new compensation model to the Alberta government, which he hopes will be considered in the 2024 budget cycle. The new compensation model will allow panel-based comprehensive care, which the AMA said other provinces have introduced and have achieved better results in primary care.

If the model isn’t adopted, however, Parks said Albertans will be forced to go to hospitals that are already over-crowded.

“This will make care for Albertans infinitely worse in the short term … In order to recover from that, it’ll take years and years to recruit physicians back and rebuild practices that have just up and shuttered and left. We cannot afford to wait and see what happens and how dire it will get,” he said.

“This is a mass casualty event. (The health-care system) is bleeding out and bleeding to death right now. I’m begging the premier and the (health minister) to let us put a tourniquet on those bleeding wounds. Let us stop the bleeding.”

Story continues below advertisement

Alberta Health Minister LaGrange said in an emailed statement to Global News the government is “committed to addressing challenges facing the health system- including in primary and acute care.”

LaGrange also said recent data from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta said the province had a net increase of 331 physicians from 2022 to 2023.

“That is why on Dec. 21, 2023, I stood with Dr. Parks to announce additional funding of $200 million over two years for stabilization measures. Once the funding flows from the federal government to the province in April 2024, Alberta’s government remains committed to providing this funding as soon as possible,” the statement read.

“Alberta Health is in constant communication with the AMA and physicians across the province to keep them updated and informed on updates that impact their practice.

“The government and the Alberta Medical Association (AMA) ratified a new agreement in September 2022. The agreement included an estimated $780 million over four years to help stabilize the health-care system, ease the pressures facing many physicians and increase support, so more Albertans can get the care they need, sooner.

“In addition to compensation, the agreement acknowledged the need for additional supports for targeted investments for practice viability and recruitment and retention of family physicians and specialists in communities facing doctor shortages. Alberta provides over $5 billion annually for physician compensation which provides some of the highest level of compensation and benefits for physicians in Canada.”

Story continues below advertisement

But Parks said the increase in the number of doctors in the province does not mean there is an increase in primary care doctors, especially in rural areas. He said comprehensive workforce data is needed to address the gaps in family medicine.

“We don’t have provincial-wide workforce planning in an organized, coordinated way … I can tell you with certainty is (the new doctors) are not doing comprehensive family medicine and not increasing as rural generalists in rural small areas,” Parks said.

“Regardless of what data you see from the government, that we do not have more physicians going into comprehensive primary care — in fact, they’re all leaving it. And this survey shows how dire and how distressing it is that we’re going to lose more and more of them.”

The ThinkHQ report was commissioned by the AMA and was conducted through a branded online survey. Out of the 5,146 valid emails that were sent, 1,375 completed surveys were received (27 per cent response rate). ThinkHQ says the margin of error is 2.3 percentage points, or 19 times out of 20. The results were weighted to reflect the actual regional distribution of Alberta family doctors according to AMA membership data, ThinkHQ said.