PEI·Analysis

Even P.E.I. political party leaders can't find a family doctor

According to Health PEI there are 13,083 Islanders on the waiting list for a new family doctor.

Access to family doctors has emerged as a key issue in the election campaign

All four parties in the P.E.I. provincial election are pitching ideas on how to recruit and retain physicians. (sasirin pamai/Shutterstock)

According to Health PEI there are 13,083 Islanders on the waiting list for a family doctor — and one of them is P.E.I. NDP Leader Joe Byrne.

He's been without a doctor only since his doctor retired at Christmas. But he says one of the people he's spoken with on the campaign trail has been waiting for a doctor for six years.

Even in that short time Byrne has learned first-hand some of the challenges of living without a family doctor.

"My asthma acted up last week and I needed a prescription filled that I hadn't used for the past eight years," he said.

His options: take time from campaigning to wait at a walk-in clinic, or spend hours waiting at an emergency room.

Number of doctors fairly static

Access to family doctors on P.E.I. has emerged as a key issue in the current election campaign, with all four parties pitching ideas about how to recruit and retain physicians, where and how they should work and how many should be working on P.E.I.

It's time for P.E.I. 'to put everything on the table,' when it comes to attracting doctors, says Island NDP leader Joe Byrne. (Julien Lecacheur/Radio-Canada)

P.E.I.'s complement of family doctors hasn't changed much going back at least to 2011. Back then the complement — that is, how many full-time equivalent positions P.E.I. funds for family doctors, whether or not those positions are filled — was 90.6.

By 2018 that figure rose to 95 — an increase of almost five per cent, falling somewhat short of population growth over that same period of 6.5 per cent.

Meanwhile the most recent data from the Canadian Institute for Health Information lists P.E.I. as having the fewest number of family doctors per 100,000 population compared to the other provinces.

Unfilled positions, doctors retiring

The Progressive Conservative party is pledging to increase the complement of family physicians on P.E.I. to 100.

The Progressive Conservative party under King is pledging to increase the complement of family physicians on P.E.I. to 100. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

The Liberals have pledged to add four new positions for family doctors to work at a new Queens County health centre.

The Greens and the NDP both say the province needs more family doctors, but haven't put forward a specific number in terms of increasing the complement.

But it's not just a matter of creating more positions for family doctors — the province also has to fill those positions.

In fact of the province's current complement of 95 FTEs, 10.5 are currently vacant.

Meanwhile, the P.E.I. Medical Society recently reported that in a survey of its members, 56 per cent said they were planning to retire, leave, or reduce their practice within the next five years.

That corresponds with CIHI data showing P.E.I.'s doctors as of 2017 were the oldest in the country, with an average age of 53.

And they told two friends, and so on

One idea voiced by the Medical Society has been eagerly picked up by all four political parties — that doctors themselves be included in the process of recruiting colleagues.

'We're looking at incentives for retention of doctors in rural areas,' says Liberal Leader Wade MacLauchlan. (CBC)

PC Leader Dennis King says one way that could be achieved would be through providing financial incentives for Island doctors who convince another doctor to come here.

"They can say to people who they went to medical school with, 'You should come to Prince Edward Island, it's a great spot here.' It's probably a lot cheaper to buy a home than it would be in downtown Toronto," said King.

"Doctors want to play a more active role, they want to fix some of the problems in the health-care system."

Increase walk-in clinic capacity

The Liberals are pledging to spend $50 million on recruitment, retention and training for health-care professionals.

MacLauchlan said that investment would be made over four or five years, but otherwise the party has offered few details yet on how the money would be spent.

The most recent budget tabled by the MacLauchlan government included just under $2 million for health recruitment and retention, restoring that budget line to 2014 levels after cuts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars since MacLauchlan became premier.

MacLauchlan said a new Liberal government would work "with the Medical Society directly in terms of recruitment and retention. We're looking at incentives for retention of doctors in rural areas."

The Liberals are also proposing to increase walk-in capacity on P.E.I. by 50 per cent by allocating more nurses and physician time, "making sure the hours are there and the locations for patients to have the service they need," said MacLauchlan.

'Can't just throw money at it'

Green Leader Peter Bevan-Baker said government's approach to recruitment and retention of doctors hasn't been working, and "if we are to solve this problem we can't just throw money at it. We have to understand that the reason doctors do not want to stay here, or choose to leave, is because we have systemic issues here."

Green Leader Bevan-Baker says we need to understand why doctors leave P.E.I. He says it's a systemic problem. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

Bevan-Baker said one of the problems in rural areas is that doctors and nurse practitioners end up having to work in isolation.

The Green Party is pledging to reverse some of the centralization of P.E.I.'s health care system that's taken place over the past decade, restoring diagnostic and treatment services to rural hospitals.

On recruitment and retention, Bevan-Baker said a Green government would sit down with "all of the allied health care professionals here on Prince Edward Island and develop a collaborative plan to bring doctors here, but also to provide the sort of system, the sorts of supports that they want and need for themselves and their families to stay here."

Medical school on P.E.I.?

The most radical proposal for doctor recruitment in this election comes from the NDP — which is proposing UPEI prepare to open its own medical school.

The party insists that idea isn't as far out as it might sound — with Saint John, N.B., operating a school affiliated with Dalhousie University, and Moncton home to a school affiliated with Université de Sherbrooke in Quebec.

The NDP is also proposing P.E.I. double, then triple, the size of its medical residency program.

It's time for P.E.I. "to put everything on the table," said Byrne. "If that means expanded residencies, if it means a medical faculty, then let's talk about it. Because we have to do something different, and the time frame we have to act is very short."

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About the Author

Kerry Campbell

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Kerry Campbell is the provincial affairs reporter for CBC P.E.I., covering politics and the provincial legislature. kerry.campbell@cbc.ca

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