Small-town Alberta having trouble finding short-term doctors

Alberta towns like St. Paul, Fort Macleod and Mayerthorpe are having increasing difficulties finding doctors to cover temporary absences.

Call for locums 40 per cent higher than average

Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley says the government's approach to doctors is stopping new grads from pursuing careers in the province. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Alberta towns like St. Paul, Fort Macleod and Mayerthorpe are having increasing difficulties finding doctors to cover temporary absences.

The Alberta Medical Association says the number of calls out for locum doctors to cover one shift or longer at rural clinics and hospitals this summer is about 40 per cent higher than the five-year average.

Dr. Parker Vandermeer, who works as a locum doctor across the province, said at an NDP news conference Tuesday he's troubled by the number of urgent calls for backup in his inbox.

"It is a people problem," he said. "You can't fix this by throwing money at it."

Vandermeer said his jobs have shifted from covering doctors' vacations or absences to more emergency coverage in communities lacking permanent doctors. Health-care workers are burned out from the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

The AMA has about 275 doctors on its list of locums.

Data suggests doctor retirements are up in Alberta.

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta saw a slight net increase in the number of doctors registered in Alberta from April 2020 to March 2021.

But the province lost a net 254 physicians in the first three months of 2021. It was the largest quarterly drop in doctors with active permits during the last three years.

NDP Leader Rachel Notley said the provincial government's caustic relationship with doctors is preventing new graduates from remaining in Alberta to replace retiring physicians.

"They feel betrayed, and they feel disrespected and they feel tremendously uncertain about their future. And all those feelings mean they're not necessarily flocking to Alberta."

The Opposition released a list of call-outs for doctors to cover shifts this summer in more than 30 communities.

Some of the shortages are in Rocky Mountain House, Elk Point and Fairview, which have had to temporarily shutter emergency rooms in the past few months.

The government has accused the Opposition of playing politics with the pandemic and said there is nothing new about rural doctor supply challenges.

Mayerthorpe losing last local physician

Janet Jabush, the mayor of Mayerthorpe, said she's worried about coverage at the town's hospital and three continuing care homes.

Mayerthorpe's only resident doctor is retiring at the end of the month. Others who work in the town commute 120 kilometres northwest from the Edmonton area, she said.

"I honestly don't like to think of what the implications are," Jabush said.

The ability to attract doctors is intertwined with local economic recovery and attracting families to live in the town of 1,300 people, she said.

Although recruitment has never been easy, the provincial government's relationship with doctors during the last two years has made it harder to find international recruits, she said.

AMA president Paul Boucher said doctor recruitment and retention is a complex issue influenced by the pandemic, the broader provincial economy and the political environment for doctors in Alberta.

Communities like Mayerthorpe pass a "tipping point" when it's more difficult to recruit doctors with few local colleagues, Boucher said.

Boucher said the government must agree to a provincial physician staffing plan and incentives to lure the professionals.

Steve Buick, press secretary to Health Minister Tyler Shandro, said in an email the pandemic has exacerbated the problem of physician coverage at smaller health-care facilities. He said there were also temporary hospital closures when the NDP was in government.

Buick said he expects the problems to ease as COVID-19 cases drop in the province. Elk Point Healthcare Centre, which closed June 7 due to staff shortages, will re-open Wednesday, he said.

New doctors have recently been announced for some of the communities on the shortage list, including McLennan, Barrhead and St. Paul, Buick said.


Janet French

Provincial affairs reporter

Janet French covers the Alberta Legislature for CBC Edmonton. She previously spent 15 years working at newspapers, including the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca.