Canada is making little progress towards fixing its shortage of family doctors, according to a report released Thursday.

The College of Family Physicians of Canada gave the health care system a grade of "D" for failing to establish a national plan that addresses the training, recruitment and retention of family doctors and other specialists.

In 2007, the group asked all governments and health authorities to provide 95 per cent of Canadians in every community with a personal family physician by 2012.

"In addition to the existing family physician shortage, the health system is now facing additional challenges created by more health professionals nearing retirement and younger professionals choosing to work differently," such as reducing the scope of their practice and working hours, said Dr. Ruth Wilson, the president of the college.

Survey results released with the report showed approximately 4.6 million Canadians, or 14 per cent, still don't have a family doctor.

The report card gives a grade of "B," or good progress, on progress toward meeting most expectations for helping medical students choose family medicine and supporting more family-practice residents in their training.

Between 2002 and 2006, there was a 22 per cent increase in spots for medical students at the country's 17 medical schools.

The group recommends:

  • Increasing the number of seats for medical students to 3,000 from the current 2, 569 by 2010. 
  • Having medical schools set a target of 45 per cent of all medical students choosing residency programs in family medicine.
  • Deferring repayment of medical student loans until practice begins.
  • Creating more family-medicine residency spots for international medical graduates.

Pair up patients in need, family doctors 

Support for practising family physicians received a grade of "C," or some progress toward pairing family doctors who are willing to accept new patients with Canadians who need one. The report noted that patient registries must be created to make it happen.

The national plan needs to "clearly define in what communities there is the greatest need, how many doctors are needed in Belleville, Ont., how many are needed in Okotoks, Alta.," said Dr. Sarah Kredentser of Winnipeg, president-elect of the college.

The surveyed suggested 92 per cent of Ontarians have their own doctor, while just 76 per cent of Quebecers can make the same claim. Community-specific information is needed, Kredentser said.

To attract and keep family doctors, the group recommended eliminating the 33 per cent income gap between family physicians and other specialists. 

Practising family doctors need a stronger commitment to allow them to access the technology and other resources they need, such as electronic health records, said Harris/Decima conducted the telephone survey of 2, 070 Canadians over age 18 years between Oct. 30 and Nov.10. The results are considered accurate to within plus or minus 2.2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

With files from Canadian Press