1 in 5 Albertans still lack regular doctor even though physician supply outgrows general population

Canada’s doctor supply continues to grow faster than the population — but one in five Albertans still don’t have a regular doctor and rural areas are often under-served, according to a new report.

The report from the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) says 2018 marks the 12th year in a row that Canada has experienced a growth in the number of physicians that surpasses the growth of the population.  

Between 2014 and 2018, the Canadian population increased by 4.6 per cent, while the physician population grew by 12.5 per cent, CIHI says.

“We have about 90,000 physicians in Canada at the moment, and just over 10,800 in Alberta,” said Geoff Ballinger, manager of physician information at CIHI.

While it’s good news that there are more people becoming physicians, it doesn’t mean rural, Indigenous or other under-served communities are seeing more doctors, the report suggests.

In Alberta, 18 per cent of the population — about one in five people — don’t have a regular doctor, according to Statistics Canada.

Patients particularly struggle to get access to a physician in remote areas, Ballinger says .

Only seven per cent of physicians are practicing in rural areas in Alberta, CIHI found. 

“That’s just a little lower than the national average, which is about just under eight per cent,” Ballinger said.

“I would suspect that there are probably some opportunities to help to try to optimize the number of physicians in rural areas in Alberta and across the country.”

CIHI is an independent, not-for-profit organization that works with governments and stakeholders to gather and provide information on policy, management, care and research.

‘Are they being used wisely?’

Ted Jablonski, a family physician and interim director of the Calgary Foothills Primary Care Network, agrees there’s more work to be done at getting doctors where they’re needed. 

“Putting extra doctors into primary care is money well spent. Putting extra doctors in areas where we’re already over-doctored — harder to say,” said Jablonski.

Dr. Ted Jablonski says it’s important to make sure physicians are being used wisely.

“That’s where we have to be very very careful. If we do feel we have extra, where are they going and are they being used wisely?

“We have to be very conscious of our money at times it’s financially tight — money is tight.”

Girl power

The report also details how physician population demographics are changing.

It says there are now more female physicians in Canada than ever before, and that over the last five years the number of female physicians in the workforce has increased by 21 per cent. 

During the same time period, the number of male physicians increased by only seven per cent. 

This is the twelfth year in a row Canada has experienced a growth in the physician population, according to CIHI. (CIHI)

“I think it’s just partially explained by women are entering into many more of the STEM professions,” said Ballinger.  “And I think the same is holding true for the medical profession as well.”

And, Jablonski says it’s been a good thing for everyone in the industry. 

“I think it’s been a very positive trend. I think it’s been very healthy for the profession to be a doctor. It’s made it a better working environment for all of us and I think it’s been very, very good for patients.”

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