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Friday, February 2, 2024

SOS: Alberta family doctors say they are in ‘crisis’ mode

“Other provinces made huge, significant investments and moved the models and built the airplane while they were flying. We can’t wait till we have the Boeing 747 and the model fully over the next two years to fine tune and get it ready to fly”

Published Feb 01, 2024  •  Last updated 7 hours ago  •  4 minute read

Alberta Medical Association president Dr. Paul Parks, with Health Minister Adriana LaGrange, left, provided an update on the status of ongoing joint work to stabilize primary health care in Alberta at the McDougall Centre in Calgary on Dec. 21, 2023. Photo by Darren Makowichuk /Postmedia, file

Social media and Zoom were SOS beacons Thursday as five family practice doctors talked frankly about the forces bearing down on Alberta’s primary care system, and why 61 per cent of the province’s family and rural doctors are considering leaving for other jurisdictions.  

Dr. Michelle Hart said her clinic in southwest Calgary is no longer financially viable.  

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“Our income plummeted when the billing fees were slashed in 2019,” she said.

Costs have gone up astronomically since COVID in particular.

As part of the Alberta Medical Association’s 24-hour succession of social media campaigns byfamily and rural physician accounts, Hart said her clinic can’t attract a doctor to replace ones who’ve left.

“I’m competing with at least 50 other clinics who are advertising to have a family doctor join them,” she said.

Over one year, she has interviewed a total of three candidates.

“They want to just do sports medicine or IUDs or niche things that we know have good payment,” she said.

Her own income isn’t keeping up with inflation.

“We’re burned out of countless hours of unpaid work — statistically it’s about 19 hours of work or registration forms and, being a clinic owner, it’s also their forms for insurance and all the work that it takes to run a clinic — every day only has 24 hours and every week only has seven days,” she said.

Like the others on Thursday’s Zoom panel, Hart’s calling for the province to make good on talk of a new funding model.  

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“I cannot renew my lease on a promise, I cannot put my children through university with goodwill,” Hart said.  

Dr. Michelle Morros is a practising family doctor in Edmonton who also teaches new doctors at the University of Alberta.

Out of 75 residents interviewed, only four of the new doctors were actually committing to take on a panel of patients for longitudinal comprehensive care — the kind that takes care of a patient for many decades, Morros said, citing factors including responsibility without support, lack of flexibility to take care of your family, the volume of unpaid work, and a lack of respect or understanding.

“It pays a lot better to do episodic care. Why do the hardest job in the system when it pays the least and is the most work?” she said.

Canada’s Western provinces have all quickly changed how they pay for patient care in the last couple of years. But in Alberta, doctors make $100,000-$150,000 less with current funding models, said Dr. Paul Parks, Zoom moderator and president of the Alberta Medical Association.

When Alberta’s budget drops on Leap Day, there needs to be an articulated funding model to keep Alberta’s physicians in the province, said Parks.

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Considering there are more than 3,000 physicians in the province, the millions in stabilization money earmarked by the federal government and UCP government is a life preserver they’re grateful for, but not the rescue needed, Parks said.

“Other provinces made huge, significant investments and moved the models and built the airplane while they were flying. We can’t wait till we have the Boeing 747 and the model fully over the next two years to fine-tune and get it ready to fly,” he said.

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Parks said he will meet directly with Health Minister Adriana LaGrange on Friday, and he urges Albertans to talk to their MLAs.

“Our hope is to educate the public so that they understand what’s at risk. So they understand and they can put some pressure on their MLAs and on the Treasury Board and on the government to say we have to do this in this budget and at the end of this month, and if we don’t, there is a lot at risk,” Parks said.

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A recent AMA poll revealed more than 90 per cent of the province’s family practice and rural docs are concerned about their clinics’ financial viability.

“Each of these (family practice) panels average 1,000 to 1,500 patients. That’s more Albertans to add to the 800,000 that don’t have a family physician right now. Do we want a province that has 1.5 million or two million patients without family physicians? We have to think about that,” Parks said.

Dr. Fauzia Khaliq-Kareemi said she may have to close her solo family practice in Calgary, citing “systemic fracturing of a family practice.”

“We the family physicians are the backbone of the medical system in Canada,” she said.  

“Just ask any specialist — ask an emergency room physician. How difficult is it when they have a patient and they don’t have a family physician to follow up? Where is that person supposed to go?

Who is going to take care of them?” Khaliq-Kareemi said.

“There’s worries about wait times in emergency rooms. Just wait as more of us close our doors. We don’t want to close our doors, please don’t force us to,” she said.

“Please, please stop hurting the very people who are (supporting) your entire medical system.”

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