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New doctor deal will help address rural doctor shortages: health minister

Four-year agreement with doctors includes money for rural physician recruitment and retention
Sylvan Lake Advanced Ambulatory Care Service has had to shorten its hours three times this week because of doctor shortages. (Black Press file photo)

Alberta Health Minister Jason Copping said the government is stepping up efforts to find doctors for smaller Alberta communities.

The minister announced a new four-year deal with doctors in Red Deer on Thursday morning, which includes $252 million in spending to help keep medical practices viable and to recruit and retain family physicians and specialists in communities where they are needed.

The government will spend $15 million annually to recruit and retain physicians who practice full-time in under-served areas, as well as up to an additional $12 million annually for the existing Remote Rural Northern Program. Another $12 million will be set aside each year to improve certain physician support programs, including the medical liability reimbursement, continuing medical education and physician locum programs.

A one-time investment is also being made in the existing Rural Education Supplement and Integrated Doctor Experience (RESIDE) program.

“Two of our most urgent issues are the need for more access to primary care and the need to recruit and retain more rural physicians,” said Copping.

Doctors have recently been successfully recruited for Lethbridge, Medicine Hat and Lloydminster, he said. Sylvan Lake also has a doctor from South Africa who is expected to begin practicing next year.

But a number of central Alberta communities remain short of family physicians. Sylvan Lake’s Advanced Ambulatory Care Service which provides urgent but non-life-threatening care has repeatedly had to close early because of doctor shortages. A clinic in Blackfalds is down to one doctor and is desperate for more help.

“The past three years have been tough, especially in smaller communities and recruitment of rural physicians is harder than ever. We need more doctors in the smaller communities across the province and the agreement will be a boost to our recruitment and our ability to succeed in this area,” said Copping.

Alberta is the most welcoming province in the country for internationally trained doctors, “who are critical to many of our small communities,” he said.

Copping was asked to respond to comments from some doctors that the rural recruitment cash was not enough.

“This agreement won’t solve all the problems, but it’s a big step forward,” he said.

The deal allows government and doctors to work better together to decide where money is best spent and assess whether initiatives are working or need to be tweaked.

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