Latest numbers suggest situation is improving but gaps remain
There seems to be an encouraging prognosis in the annual examination of Canadian doctors conducted by the Canadian Institute for Health Information.
The CIHI's latest report, "Supply, Distribution and Migration of Canadian Physicians," suggests efforts to provide more doctors for Canadian citizens, including rural residents, are succeeding. According to the report, released last week, the number of doctors in Canada grew by 14 per cent from 2007 to 2011, well ahead of the country's population increase of 4.7 per cent. During the same period, the supply of physicians in rural areas climbed by almost 10 per cent while rural citizen population increased by about two per cent.
The doctor supply picture in Alberta is brighter, too, according to the report. There were 216 physicians per 100,000 Albertans in 2011, an increase from 211 doctors per 100,000 residents the previous year and significantly above the national figure of 209 physicians per 100,000 Canadians.
Alberta, along with Newfoundland and Labrador, also has, on average, the youngest group of doctors with an average age of 48.1 years. That's a positive figure that suggests Alberta's physician pool will be less affected by retirement in the coming years than some other provinces.
The report doesn't mean we're out of the woods in terms of meeting the demand for physicians. The CIHI research showed that, among family physicians, 14.6 per cent were located in rural areas in 2011, while 18 per cent of the population lived in rural areas. That suggests rural residents still don't have as much access to family doctors as urban dwellers.
That's not a new problem but it's one that still needs a solution. The Town of Milk River, for example, has been dealing with a doctor shortage for years. The community has one full-time physician but still needs two more.
Even in the cities, it can be difficult for residents to find a family physician who is accepting new patients. But the growing numbers of doctors in Canada offers reason for optimism that the issue is being addressed.
While the supply numbers might be encouraging, it doesn't mean Canada can rest on its laurels. All the research points to growing demands on the medical system. The fact that some rural communities are in need of doctors, and some patients are having trouble finding a family physician, indicates more doctors are still needed.
In rural areas, part of the challenge is the old problem of trying to attract doctors. Not everyone wants to live in a small town, and not every doctor wants to go into family medicine, which offers its own set of challenges.
These challenges are the reason the Society of Rural Physicians of Canada has urged a pan-Canadian rural health strategy. The SRPC says the doctor shortage is twice as severe in rural Canada.
So the rising number of doctors in Canada is encouraging to some extent, but there's still work to be done to ensure Canadians everywhere have reasonably equal access to a physician.
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