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New funding won’t take the pressure off, says Red Deer family doctor

Alberta Health announces Panel Management Support Program
FILE - Alberta Health has announced a Panel Management Support Program to help offset costs for primary care providers to provide comprehensive care as their patient panels grow. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Jeff Roberson

New funding to help family doctors keep track of all their patients won’t reduce patient loads and will still leave many Albertans without a family doctor, says a Red Deer family physician.

In mid-October, the government committed to providing $57 million over three years to support family practitioners in managing their increasing number of patients. The first allocation of $12 million for 2023-24 for the Panel Management Support Program has been given to the Alberta Medical Association (AMA) to administer.

Payments will vary depending on the number of patients who call them their family doctor, and doctors will receive up to a maximum of $10,000 annually. Those with more than 500 patients on a panel are eligible.

Dr. Peter Bouch, with Red Deer Primary Care Network, said $12 million sounds like a lot of money, but it won’t go far when spread across the province.

“It’s definitely not making family physicians all warm and fuzzy. It’s a nice gesture, but it won’t make a big dent in the bucket that’s for sure,” said Bouch whose panel includes about 3,000 patients.

He said for years Red Deer PCN staff have already been identifying those who no longer need, or consider a doctor, their family physician to make room for new patients. PCNs in Calgary, Edmonton, Grande Prairie, Lethbridge and in Southern Alberta have also been managing their patient panels. Small, rural PCNs may benefit the most from the funding, and it could open up a few more spots for patients, but it definitely will not make an “earth-shattering change.”

“We need more physicians — period — full-service family physicians.”

He said the problem is that doctors are retiring in Red Deer and there’s not enough doctors to take on orphan patients. One way to help address the shortage could be to make it easier for doctors in Ireland, who are Canadian, to practice in Canada.

“There are a lot of doctors in Ireland who are Canadians who are finding it very difficult to come back to Canada because they need to do their residency again, or they need to get a residency spot. Not many spots open up,” Bouch said.


Alberta doctors explain what the primary care crisis means for their patients and practices

Alberta’s family doctors have been increasingly vocal about their overwhelming patient loads and financial struggles to keep their clinics open.

Panel Management Support is in addition to $200 million over two years through the new Canada-Alberta Health Funding Agreement to help stabilize primary health care and improve access to family physicians, which will be available in April.

With just three weeks to go before the 2024-25 budget is released, the AMA is waiting to see when more help will be on the way.

“We appreciate the ongoing discussions with the minister and the funds that are being announced. This and the federal funding will, when paid out, be a down payment to help stabilize physician practices. Immediate stabilization is just the first phase, requiring additional support of practices until they can transition to a new model for funding comprehensive, lifelong care for our patients,” said AMA president Dr. Paul Parks, in a statement.

“We look forward to more details around the timing of the rest of the budget.”


Pressure on Red Deer family doctors continues to grow

Alberta Health said recipients of panel management funding are expected to use the money to fund staff, technology and other practice resources to reduce the time, cost and effort spent on administrative tasks involved with providing comprehensive primary care, allowing family practitioners to spend more time with patients.

Nurse practitioners will also be eligible to receive this funding once the new funding model for nurse practitioners is finalized in the coming weeks.

Health Minister Adriana LaGrange said the funding will help family practitioners manage their growing number of patients and is another way the provincial government is taking action to stabilize and strengthen primary health care.

“We continue to collaborate with the AMA at various working tables to address challenges facing the system and to do what is necessary to make primary health care the foundation of the entire health care system,” LaGrange said.

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