The number of doctors in Alberta is on the rise, but many rural residents still struggle to find medical help.
In the past decade, the number of doctors in the province has jumped by 60 per cent, according to national report released Thursday. There are now about 216 doctors per 100,000 Albertans, up from 211 per 100,000 the previous year and still higher than the national average of 209 doctors per 100,000 Canadians, the most recent report from the Canadian Institute for Health Information shows.
According to the report, there are more licensed doctors in Canada than ever before and more of them moved to Alberta in 2011 than to any other province. Alberta gained 376 doctors between 2010 and 2011, 155 of them family doctors. In Canada last year, there were a total of 72,529 doctors; 8,258 in Alberta. Just more than half of those were family doctors, according to the report, and about 15 per cent of the country’s family doctors lived in rural Canada.
But those statistics represent only the total number of licensed medical doctors, not the number of currently practicing doctors. And those can be hard to find. Rarer still, in some areas, are practicing doctors who are accepting new patients.
The Town of Milk River, which serves about 5,000 residents within the region, has one doctor. It needs two more. For years, a local doctor recruitment committee has been trying to entice full-time doctors to work in Milk River, but it’s a constant battle to find one who will stay.
“To be able to get a doctor who is going to fit into what we have to offer, and be here long term is what we’re really looking for. We don’t want to be like a stepping stone, and I think most rural communities are like that. A doctor (comes) and gets into the system and then moves on shortly afterwards because then they’ve got their ticket to practice in the province,” said Pat Howitt, manager of the Milk River Medical Clinic and secretary of the doctor recruitment committee.
“We want something that’s going to be a little bit more long-lasting, if at all possible, and that’s a challenge for any small community.”
Milk River’s long-time physician, Dr. Liesel Lewke-Bogle, retired in 2005 after more than 30 years of service in the community, only to return to work full-time five years later when the community once again found itself without any permanent doctors and Alberta Health Services threatened to temporarily close the small hospital’s emergency department.
“That was the reason why I came back to work, because I said once you lose a service, you’ll never get it back,” she said. “I felt would be really detrimental to our community and so I felt, ‘this is my community, I live here, 10 years from now I want to still be able to have access to emergency without having to go an hour-and-a-half or two hours to get help.’ So that was my commitment to the community,” Dr. Lewke-Bogle told the Lethbridge Herald after she accepted her Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal last month.
In Lethbridge, the number of doctors is on the rise. The number of doctors living in the city increased by 7.5 per cent since 2011. There are now 228 doctors registered with the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons, according to that organization’s July 2012 quarterly report, compared to 212 doctors at the same time last year.
The college doesn’t keep track of how many doctors are needed in a particular area of the province.