Three Red Deer family doctors are retiring in the next six months and five-to-six other aging physicians are planning to stop practicing in the next two years.
Red Deer’s older population of general practitioners is fuelling significant concerns that the too-long waiting lists at local walk-in clinics could soon stretch even longer — unless recruitment efforts start paying off soon.
Even before these looming retirements, Red Deer’s walk-in clinics already have the longest wait times in the province. According to Medimap’s Wait Time Index, the average wait to see a family doctors in this city was 71 minutes — almost double the Alberta average.
As of Wednesday, not a single doctor of the 85-plus names on the Primary Care Network’s Red Deer’s Find a Doctor website were listed as accepting new patients.
Dr. Peter Bouch, of the Primary Care Network, said it’s historically been difficult to get young medical school graduates to commit to practicing in this city. “It’s a problem we have been aware of for a very long time.”
He believes many graduate physicians in the urban residency program really aim to live in larger cities, where more cultural and sports activities are on offer. Doctors who go through the rural residency program, meanwhile, tend to want to work in small centres, where they can handle more emergency situations.
Because Red Deer is mid-sized, it appears to be caught between the two, he added. Bouch noted Red Deer hospital only gets young resident physicians through the rural residency program —and many of these later leave to practice in smaller centres.
As to why the hospital couldn’t also train urban resident physicians, Bouch isn’t sure there would be enough capacity for both programs to operate locally.
While Red Deer hospital’s short-falls are well known, Bouch doesn’t think these are necessarily adding to the recruitment problem for GPs because family doctors can opt out of hospital privileges if they wish.
Bouch admitted concerns are growing about patient access to medical professionals in Red Deer because of the upcoming physician retirements.
As a native of South Africa, Bouch was among the foreign doctors recruited to Canada to practice about 25 years ago. But he noted new rules mean most foreign-trained physicians are now having to pass entrance tests before practicing here, so Canada is becoming less attractive.
In any case, he doesn’t believe the answer is to bring in more foreign doctors. Bouch feels Canadian medical schools should be training more young physicians. But training is expensive, so the number of medical school spots is tied to how much funding these schools receive from government.
Another issue is that some doctors in Red Deer do not directly take patients, but only work at walk-in clinics, where patients may not get the same doctor on a return visit, said Bouch. While arguments have been made about better continuity of care under the same doctor, Bouch added physicians have a choice in how they want to practice.
He suggested local GPs who are concerned about the local recruitment situation need to get together with Alberta Health Services officials to see what more can be done to bring in new family physicians.
Last month, 23 new doctors, including specialists, were reported to be practicing in Red Deer — one of the largest gains in the province according to a quarterly report from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta.
“Of course we still need more doctors in Red Deer and across the province, but it’s a step in the right direction,” stated Alberta Health spokesperson Steve Buick at the time.
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