Commentary – Rural regions dying to get physicians

Richard Froese

Rural regions are dying for doctors.

Areas around small communities like Falher, McLennan and High Prairie suffer from a severe shortage of physicians.

The Smoky River region around Falher has a bare number of physicians.

A story in the South Peace News on May 20 reported that the region faced a crisis of just two full-time physicians in the summer.

It’s getting just as dire to the east.

“A crisis has arisen in High Prairie,” says Dr. Robert Laughlin, a physician in High Prairie for 45 years.

“There will potentially be only six doctors in the community.”

That’s less than one half of what Alberta Health Services (AHS) recommended several years ago.

Former AHS North zone director Dr. Kevin Worry went on record when he recommended that High Prairie needs a total of 11 physicians, Laughlin says.

The veteran physician is further frustrated that Health Minister Tyler Shandro announced that a program of physician locums will be transferred to AHS from the Alberta Medical Association (AMA).

Laughlin predicts the change will have “mammoth” effects and leave rural communities such as High Prairie without adequate physician services.

So why do small rural communities such as High Prairie and Falher continue to be under-staffed by physicians?

Local municipal councils are pleading to the health minister and MLAs and even Premier Jason Kenney for more support for physicians and services residents deserve to have.

Residents can also get on board and call on the government, including Lesser Slave Lake MLA Pat Rehn, Central Peace – Notley MLA Todd Loewen and Peace River MLA Dan Williams.

Why are northern and rural communities not a priority for the government?

Where are all the doctors in our local communities?

Recruiting more physicians was a priority for candidates in the provincial election campaign in April 2019.

Since being elected, what has the UCP government done to ensure rural regions have an adequate number of physicians?

Shandro says it’s become a higher concern and priority.

“We spend 15 per cent more per capita on physicians than the national average, but Albertans aren’t seeing better results, and we have the same shortages in smaller communities that we’ve seen for decades,” Shandro says in a news release July 31

New data from the Canadian Institute of Health Information (CIHI) shows the number of physicians in Alberta has increased twice as fast as the population, and the province has more doctors per capita than the national average.

The number of physicians in Alberta increased by 12 per cent from 2015 to 2019 while the population grew by six per cent.

Alberta has more physicians per person than the national average, and more than British Columbia, Ontario or Quebec.

“This data confirms that we need new approaches to paying and working with doctors,” Shandro says.

“The previous (NDP) government increased spending by $1 billion a year, yet rural physician supply grew slower than in other provinces.”

Alberta spends $5.4 billion a year on physicians, the highest level ever in the province and highest per capita of all provinces. This includes $81 million a year to support rural physician recruitment and retention.

Doctors order – more physicians in rural areas.

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