Ten graduating family medicine physicians are coming to Red Deer this spring to learn the ropes through the rural family medicine residency program.
According to past data, only one or two of these doctors-in-training will stay in Red Deer to start-up practices after completing their two-year residency.
The rest will move to smaller centres, or leave the province.
Dr. Kayla Gilbert, co-site director of the Red Deer Rural Residency Program for family medicine, said most doctors who sign up for a rural residency ultimately want the challenges and lifestyle of working in smaller communities.
By moving to Ponoka or Innisfail, “it’s not like they are gone, gone. They are still close and supporting Red Deer hospital” with obstetrics and other kinds of patient care, she added.
The trouble is, a lot of graduating doctors are abandoning Alberta altogether.
A University of Alberta study shows that out of 1,400 family doctors who graduated here since 2007, more than a third — 38 per cent — have chosen to leave the province. (Notably, 18 per cent out of the 1,400 doctors have chosen to practice in a rural areas, versus 82 per cent who remain to work in urban centres).
Gilbert believes the same discontent causing some young doctors to depart is also hindering recruitment to Alberta, which has a negative reputation because of a thorny relationship between the provincial government and medical practitioners.
Besides wages for family medicine residencies being the second lowest in the country, there’s also the harm caused when the government terminated its compensation contract with doctors in 2020, and dictated new terms while refusing to negotiate with physicians, she said.
A subsequent lawsuit, launched by the Alberta Medical Association, was dropped after the province agreed to reinstate compensation to doctors.
But the damage was done, said Gilbert, who believes many doctors who planned to practice in the province have since decided to go elsewhere.
To fix this problem, she believes the government will have to demonstrate through a public campaign a more positive attitude towards physicians.
People “need to see doctors at the table with government, talking about how to make sustainable health care decisions,” she said, while acknowledging this is a more difficult problem to solve than simply a wage issue.
On the positive side, while 49 doctor residency spots in Alberta are going unfilled, Red Deer’s rural family medicine program is completely full — which is a testament to how good the local training program is, said Gilbert.
“One of the reasons we are always full is we have an excellent teaching team,” with local doctors devoted to family medicine mentoring graduate physicians, Gilbert added.
As well, she credits more seasoned central Alberta physicians for being willing to help new doctors start-up practices in small towns.
Rural residency programs are also offered at hospitals in Lethbridge, Grande Prairie, Medicine Hat and Yellowknife.