Canada's supply of doctors continues to outpace population growth but the numbers don't reflect the true picture, experts say.
The Canadian Institute for Health Information released its annual report on the supply, distribution and migration of Canadian physicians on Thursday.
Between 2007 and 2011, the Canadian population increased by 4.7 per cent while the population of doctors increased by 14 per cent, resulting in 209 physicians per 100,000 last year.
All provinces saw a rise in doctor numbers.
During the study period, the number of doctors in rural areas increased by almost 10 per cent while the rural popualtion grew by two per cent.
The number of doctors graduating from Canadian universities also rose steadily last year, and the number of internationally trained Canadian doctors also increased.
But to get the whole story, there needs to be a better understanding of how care is organized, patient needs and physician workloads, Jean-Marie Berthelot, the institute’s vice-president of programs, said in a release.
More than 36 per cent of the doctors were women.
"Women physicians tend to take more time with each patient and therefore they may work the same number of hours but the volume of patients they see would be a little bit less," said Dr. Thomas Freeman of Western University in London, Ont.
"We're seeing it with our male graduates as well. I think we're seeing a change in the way that our young people, recent graduates, are practicing and that's having an impact on how well we're able to meet needs."
Simply doing head counts is not an accurate way of determining physician need, cautioned Freeman. He's studied access to family physicians in southwestern Ontario.
Freeman said he's seen female physicians take on more work later in their careers as their families grow up. Americans have also identified a huge need for family physicians, particularly to meet the needs of the Affordable Care Act, and they may come seeking Canadian graduates, Freeman added.
Dr. Sandy Buchman, president of the College of Family Physicians of Canada, noted that the report simply defines family physicians as non-specialists, without considering how they may be practicing only sports medicine rather than comprehensive family medicine.
"With the challenges that face us in primary care and family medicine, the complexity of disease, the aging population, the vulnerable populations, I think that Canadians aren't getting the access that they deserve," Buchman said.
The use and roles of other care providers such as nurse practitioners and allied health providers such as dietitians in primary care also make a difference, Freeman said.