Albertans searching for a family physician are finding fewer and fewer options to choose from.
The Alberta Find a Doctor website is managed by Alberta’s Primary Care Networks (PCNs) and allows patients to search for family physicians in their area. In Sept. 2023, there were only 190 doctors taking new patients, down from 390 in May 2022, according to the website.
As of Oct. 3, there were 10 PCNs with no doctors accepting new patients: Bonnyville, Grande Prairie, Wolf Creek, Wetaskiwin, Wainwright, Peaks to Prairies, Rocky Mountain House, Leduc Beaumont Devon, WestView, and Borealis.
“It doesn’t mean that there are doctor shortages everywhere. It means that there is much more limited availability of physicians in most, if not all, communities,” said Keith Bradford, director of communications for Calgary and area PCNs.
“And then in some communities, obviously, we’re now seeing situations where there are no doctors taking patients or there are very few doctors taking patients.”
When the site launched in 2019, Bradford said they got feedback from users asking to have options listed to help them match a physician to their specific needs, such as the doctor’s gender, what languages they spoke, and what clinics they worked out of.
“It’s definitely a reality in 2023, in many communities, that choosing whether your physician is male or female might no longer be an option,” he said.
“I think what we’re seeing is that there is less choice available. Our job is to help connect Albertans with doctors who are accepting patients, and certainly it’s more challenging to do in 2023 than it was in 2019.”
There are several, complex reasons for the decline in available doctors, including the number of students choosing a career in family medicine, population growth, and physicians retiring or moving, Bradford said.
“We just lost one doctor who retired, and the clinic is actively recruiting,” said Anwar Haq, executive director of the Rocky Mountain House PCN.
“There are certain challenges to recruit to rural centres, because not everyone from urban centres wants to move. So sometimes we have to even look for foreign-trained physicians.”
For the care network that serves Spruce Grove, Stony Plain, and Parkland County, the loss of doctors has been a slow process over the last few years, and replacing them hasn’t been easy, said Nikki Whitaker, executive director of the WestView PCN.
“Being a small community, it’s tough to recruit,” she said. “We don’t have an excess of physicians here. I think that all of the physicians within our catchment area are actually signed up to our PCN. So, there is nobody else within our area that we could sign up.”
The data from Alberta Find a Doctor offers a glimpse at the staffing issues in PCNs in the province, but it’s not a complete picture. Information on doctor availability comes from the physicians and clinics themselves and can change faster than the website is updated.
In the case of Bonnyville, the data indicates no physicians are available, but there is a doctor from nearby Lakeland PCN who works out of the Bonnyville clinic, and is taking on new patients, Bradford explained.
While some doctors might travel between regions, it is more likely that patients will be the ones driving further from home for their appointments.
“We are seeing increasing evidence of patients travelling to see a family doctor. Both in urban areas where they’re travelling to see someone across the city or the town, and then obviously we have quite a few rural communities right now where there are no doctors taking new patients,” Bradford said.
“That is definitely one of the options emerging in both rural and urban areas, that patients are travelling to receive care.”
Because PCNs use a team-based care model, integrating doctors, nurses, and other health-care professionals to provide for patients, they have the flexibility to adapt to meet patient needs if physicians are in short supply.
“We’ve recruited a few nurse practitioners and we actually run a virtual care clinic with one of our nurse practitioners who can provide access for a lot of the patients within our area that don’t have access to a physician,” Whitaker said.
Nurse practitioners have the same scope of practice and can provide the same services as a family physician can, Whitaker said. During the COVID-19 pandemic, WestView had success with a virtual care clinic, and has kept it running with a nurse practitioner to serve neighbouring communities and people who can’t get in to see a doctor.
“We find a lot of value in virtual care. And if there is a patient that needs to be seen in person, we’ll see them in our clinic. So there is an option for in-person with our nurse practitioners if they need,” Whittaker said.
“We’re trying to find creative ways that we can meet their needs and make sure that people can access care when and where they need it.”
By Brett McKay, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on Oct 14, 2023 at 09:54