Concerns grow as more and more Albertans can't find a family doctor
Number of primary care network doctors accepting new patients has dropped by half
A dramatic drop in the number of family physicians accepting new patients has left many Albertans without a doctor to call their own, and the shortage is sparking concerns about patient care and safety.
Most family doctors are connected to primary care networks, which have a centralized online portal for finding a physician.
The number of Alberta doctors accepting new patients through that portal dropped by half — from 907 to 446 — between May 2020 and January of 2022, according to data provided by the primary care networks.
"Not knowing is difficult," said Daphne Pauls, 53, who has fibromyalgia and recently found out her family doctor, based in Pincher Creek, is leaving the province.
It's a big worry for Pauls, who lives in Lundbreck, and said consistent care is key for maintaining her health.
"It just leaves me kind of not knowing how will my health be cared for. Am I going to just have to see different doctors every time I go in? Will I have one doctor? And it just makes it more complicated."
"I'm extremely concerned," said Dr. Everett Zdrill, a family physician in Edson and a board member with the Alberta College of Family Physicians.
With quick and regular access to care, he said, health problems can be caught and treated earlier.
"You might end up with a smaller treatment or a smaller surgery or a less complicated treatment course. Whereas the longer you wait, the worse it gets. And so people present with delayed pathology."
Doctors worry this could lead to delays in diagnosing serious health problems such as cancer or deterioration in patients with complex and chronic health problems.
According to Zdrill, some doctors are retiring early, some are scaling back and others are moving their practice out of the province.
"There'll be some people who are saying, 'Hey, this has been quite a grind here in the last couple of years, and I don't see it getting better, I see it getting worse,'" he said.
"We still don't have a contract, still don't feel very respected, so [they're saying] 'I'll move to another province where I feel more respected.'"
Dr. Tobias Gelber is packing up and moving to B.C., after practising in Pincher Creek for 20 years.
He said the provincial government's support of primary care has eroded, leaving physicians demoralized, and that is one of several factors driving his decision to leave.
"Nobody wants to come work here. There is a huge amount of uncertainty. We have had four open positions in Pincher Creek."
When Gelber leaves, the town will be down to roughly half its full complement of family physicians.
And at the end of June, he'll hand off his roster of 1,865 patients to the five remaining doctors in town.
"We're getting back into the dark ages of primary care when you had to wait … two, three months for an appointment for routine stuff. And what's going to happen is you're going to have more and more people coming into the emergency department. It's going to get busier and busier because they can't access … any primary care doc when they need to," he said.
No doctors accepting new patients in Bow Valley
The situation is becoming acute in many regions.
Several primary care networks, including Bow Valley (covering Banff and Canmore), report having zero family physicians accepting new patients.
Dr. James Clem, with the Alpine Medical Clinic in Banff, was the last doctor to remove his name from the list when the number of people calling became overwhelming and he could no longer take anyone on.
"It's quite challenging. It's basically impossible because currently there are no family doctors in the valley who are accepting new patients. And if you look at a map of southern Alberta, the closest family doctor that is advertising as accepting new patients is in northwest Calgary," said Clem, who is also on the Bow Valley primary care network board.
"[That's] about a 90-minute drive away. So it's not very accessible."
Since late 2020, the number of family physicians providing regular, ongoing care has dropped by six within the Bow Valley primary care network.
And the region is not alone in this regard.
One of Clem's patients recently moved to Lethbridge, and due to a shortage there is forced to drive back to Banff for care.
Health-care workers in the areas surrounding Calgary have been sounding the alarm, for months, about the dearth of family physicians.
Stephanie Crichton, the executive director of the Calgary Rural primary care network, said many physicians started leaving after the pandemic's fourth wave.
"It's just been a large exit thus far, and unfortunately we have not been able to bring any physicians in," she said, adding they've been in talks with organizations — including Alberta Health Services, the Alberta Medical Association, Alberta Health and others — to flag their concerns. They've also written to MLAs in an effort to draw attention to the situation.
"We are very concerned.… We want to make sure our communities stay viable, and having a family physician and primary care is extremely important."