The doctor is out: Study finds B.C. doctors retiring earlier than thought

A study from the Canadian Medical Association Journal says B.C. does not have an accurate idea of when its doctors are retiring. The lead author also says the number of active, practising physicians is overestimated.

Lead author says number of active, practising physicians is overestimated in B.C.

The lead author of a study on doctor retirement says new doctors should be supported in exploring alternative ways of practising. (iStock)

Doctors in B.C. are retiring earlier than official data suggests and the province's supply of practising physicians — today and in the future — could be overestimated.

That's according to the lead author of a new study published this week in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Lindsay Hedden, a postdoctoral fellow at UBC's School of Population and Public Health, said those findings are important for the medical system to consider in its planning.

It also became important for her own personal planning when her doctor retired sooner than expected.

"It took a long time for my son, my husband and I to find another physician," she told On The Coast host Stephen Quinn.

"It's an hour's drive for us to go and see our [new] doctor but I will not give up the good clinic that we've found. … I don't want to have to go through that experience again of having to find another physician."

Hedden's study also found that doctors are retiring earlier than B.C. College of Physicians and Surgeons data suggests, and many doctors gradually reduce their workloads in the years preceding retirement.

Why the difference?

Hedden said the overestimated number of physicians comes from the way the college counts them.

The college counts physicians through the licence renewal process. As part of that process, she explained, doctors renewing licences need to certify they have provided 960 hours of care in the last three years.

She said that can lead to discrepancies if, for example, those hours are all accumulated in only one of the three years.

Her study measured retirements using physician billings; when a doctor stops billing for services one year, the study considered them retired in that year.

She says while college numbers show there are 12,187 active doctors in B.C., that number is too high — but she and her research colleagues have not been able to ascertain by how much.

Listen to the full interview:

Rural doctors, women, experience burnout

The study found doctors in rural settings and female doctors retired earlier than urban and male counterparts by two and four years respectively.

The study didn't examine why they retired earlier, but Hedden believes it could be for a similar reason: role strain.

"[Women] take on the vast amount of the unpaid labour and the emotional labour compared to their partners still, in this day and age, and that can lead to burnout," she said.

"Same goes for rural physicians: They take on a higher scope of practice…. They provide just much more extensive care for their patients."

Hedden said those findings deserve further research.

What to do?

She said to prevent B.C. from experiencing a worsening shortage of doctors, alternative practice models need to be explored.

Many new doctors are interested in a more team-based approach, but there are few clinics set up that way.

"The way most physicians have their practices set up right now is as entrepreneurs, so they are business managers," she said. "A lot of new grads are a lot less interested in a practice model like that."

Another idea she has is pairing young doctors with ones near retirement, which might encourage the older doctors to stay on longer and provide mentoring for the younger ones.

She said she does not believe there are enough physicians studying in medical school to replace all of the retiring physicians.

With files from CBC Radio One's On The Coast