The number of physicians in Canada is at an all-time high and rising, according to new data, suggesting the much-discussed doctor shortage may be improving.

Between 1980 and 2010, the number of physicians in Canada increased by 87.1 per cent, finds the study, Supply Distribution and Migration of Canadian Physicians, 2010, released Thursday by the Canadian Institute for Health Information. 

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Between 1980 and 2010, the number of physicians in Canada increased by 87.1 percent, the CIHI report finds. (iStock)

During this time, there were variations in the number of physicians per province. While the number of doctors increased 182.5 per cent in Alberta, the North West Territories experienced a 20.9 per cent decline in physicians.

In 2010, there were 203 physicians per 100,000 Canadians versus 151 in 1980. Of the 69,699 active physicians in Canada in 2010, 35,366 were family medicine physicians and 34,333 were specialist physicians.

"Although continued investments across Canada to train and retain more doctors means we now have more physicians than ever, it’s important to remember that numbers alone do not tell the whole story," said Michael Hunt, CIHI’s director of pharmaceuticals and health workforce Information Services, in a release.

"The demand for physician services depends on a number of factors, including the health care needs of Canadians, the way care is organized, the number of hours doctors are working and the scope of practice of other health professionals."

There has also been a surge in the number of medical graduates from both Canadian universities and foreign institutions. In 2010, 2,448 medical degrees were awarded — a 30 per cent increase from 2005, according to the report. The number of international medical school graduates grew 18 per cent, meaning that 2,500 physicians joined the supply of doctors in Canada. These numbers  are expected to increase in the coming years.

There are also fewer doctors leaving Canada. The percentage of physicians leaving Canada dropped by 16 per cent between 2006 and 2010.

The long goodbye

While the average age of physicians increased 4.4 per cent between 1981 and 2010, and grew 6.4 years for family physicians between 1991 and 2010, that might change. In 2010, approximately equal groups of physicians were younger than 40 and older than 60. However, as more doctors are choosing to stay the workforce longer and retire at an average age of 69.3, it’s impossible to tell if the average age will stay the same or decrease, reads the report.

As for gender, the breakdown is changing as well. The number of female doctors grew 3.9 per cent between 2009 and 2010 compared to 1.4 per cent of men. However, there are still more men than women —women currently account for 36.1 per cent of Canadian doctors. The report also found that more women become family doctors (41.3 per cent) versus 30.8 per cent of specialists.