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Alberta doctors calling on the province to recruit more oncologists

'We have to be competitive in this province and we haven't': AMA
FILE - The Alberta Medical Association is concerned about the need for more oncologists in Alberta. The Canadian Press/Jeff McIntosh

As Alberta struggles with a lack of oncologists, it's even tougher for a community like Red Deer to provide care for its cancer patients, says AMA president Dr. Paul Parks. 

"In the regional and more rural centres, it's much more difficult to attract cancer care specialists," Parks said.

"A big part of that is it's a very specialized, and specific type of medical care, so you have to have teams around them to support that type of care. That gets harder in the regional centres like Red Deer."

Many Red Deer patients also end up travelling to Edmonton or Calgary for treatment so they can't avoid the province-wide oncologist shortage, he added. 

Alberta currently needs 20 to 30 more oncologists to meet the existing demand, and another 50 over the next three years. 

"We have the lowest number of oncologists, or cancer care specialists, per capita in the nation. Our waits are just going up and up."

The target is for patients diagnosed with cancer to see a specialist within four weeks, but people routinely wait eight to 10 weeks, sometimes 12 to 16 weeks, he said. 

Parks, who is an emergency department physician, said with an aging population, Alberta's inter-provincial population boom, and thousands of Albertans without a family doctor, more people are finding out they have cancer in an emergency department. 

"Now it's quite common, for myself and my colleagues. We're seeing and diagnosing patients with advanced cancers."

In busy, noisy emergency departments, that lack privacy and supports, patients are being told they have cancer, he said. 

"It's obviously horrendous and terrifying for patients. It's horrible."

Parks said patients go home and wait, knowing every week treatment is delayed can increase their risk of dying from cancer. 

"We have to be able to do better."

While the province reports that 17 new oncologists have been recruited for 2024-25, the AMA says that 10 of them will replace doctors who are retiring or leaving the province. Another recruit has already backed out to work in Ontario, and one is moving to Calgary from Medicine Hat. 

He said Canada only trains about 50 medical oncologists and 50 radiation oncologists per year. Ontario and British Columbia are aggressively recruiting oncologists while Alberta government is not. 

"We have to be competitive in this province and we haven't," Parks said. 

Alberta Health said work is underway between the AMA and Alberta Health Services on a new master agreement for oncologists, and Alberta Health works closely with AHS to actively recruit using multiple strategies.

Since April 2023, Cancer Care Alberta has hired 40 physicians, including the 17.2 net new full-time physicians for 2024-25 with various start dates, Alberta Health said.

In 2023, Cancer Care Alberta hired about 115 clinical support staff (new and replacement). Active recruitment continues for 45 clinical support positions posted in 2024.

"We remain focused on addressing challenges in attracting, training and retaining health professionals in areas of need, including oncology," said Alberta Health, in a statement. 

The ministry said it is also working closely with the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary to increase the number of undergraduate medical training seats and residency positions to enable more than 100 additional Alberta-trained physicians to practice annually.



Susan Zielinski

About the Author: Susan Zielinski

Susan has been with the Red Deer Advocate since 2001. Her reporting has focused on education, social and health issues.
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