Ponoka is heading for a medical crisis, with two family doctors leaving, and the remaining eight doctors already too busy to accept new patients.
Dr. Paras Satija, who is shutting down his practice at Battle River Medical Clinic in August and leaving Alberta, said many people in the area are currently without a family doctor.
The population continues to grow, he said, and residents of Maskwacis also depend on local doctors.
“We don’t have anybody in the wings that we’re looking at recruiting in the next year or two,” said Satija, who expects the community to reach a crisis point in six to eight months.
The second Ponoka doctor is leaving to continue their medical education.
Satija said the town could use 12 doctors, and said new graduates are not looking at setting up shop in Alberta. Like him, they are concerned about how the provincial government is treating physicians, he said.
In recent months, doctors from Stettler, Sundre, Rocky Mountain House, Canmore, Three Hills, Bragg Creek, Drayton Valley, Cold Lake, Lacombe, Pincher Creek, Fort McMurray and Claresholm have announced plans to leave.
Earlier this year, Alberta Health cancelled the master agreement with the Alberta Medical Association, which bargains on behalf of doctors.
Health Minister Tyler Shandro unilaterally implemented new fee and benefit rules that involved changes that some rural and family doctors warned could force them to close their practices or reduce services.
Shandro cancelled fee changes after some rural doctors pushed back by cancelling hospital duties.
Satija said he believes the attack against doctors is not finished, and the future of rural medicine may still be in jeopardy.
“If these communities start going into crisis mode, where physicians are being overworked, they’re not going to have time to take on learners and train and teach effectively. That will have a downstream effect that will be quite detrimental.”
He said doctors understand that health-care costs need to be reduced.
“Everywhere I go in the country, I’ll be making less money than I did in Alberta. I’m well aware of that. But it really is not about the money. It’s about respect.
“There is a lot of sacrifice. People give up their 20s. People give up their 30s. People are in medicine because they like the type of work.”
Satija, who opened his practice in Ponoka last July, said he started asking himself why he was working for this government. Doctors need stability so they can focus on their patients, he said.
“There is only so much bullying and abuse I will tolerate before I have to pull the plug. It doesn’t look to me like it’s stopping anytime soon,” Satija said.
NDP health critic David Shepherd said Premier Jason Kenney is putting rural Alberta families at risk.
“He is chasing established doctors out of their communities across the province and sending a clear message to Alberta medical students that there is no future for them in their own province,” Shepherd said in a statement.
Steve Buick, press secretary for Shandros, said in a statement that several hundred physicians enter and leave Alberta each year. Overall, the province gained 293 doctors, or nearly three per cent, in the 2019-20 fiscal year.
Of all the health zones, Alberta Health Services’ central zone experienced the largest gain of 35 physicians, or almost five per cent, with no population increase.
“Alberta is the best place in Canada for physicians to work and we’re committed to keeping it that way, most recently by making our rural/remote/northern incentives the most generous in Canada. Those incentives include a $4,300 annual flat payment to physicians in Ponoka, the same as in recent years,” Buick said.
He said on average, the gross payment increase to Alberta doctors was $30,000 in the latest four years, compared to the national average of $10,000.
— with files from The Canadian Press