This month, like thousands of Islanders, I received a letter from Health PEI telling me I no longer had a family physician. It was especially disappointing since Dr. Jocelyn Peterson was the best doctor I’ve had.
I have no expectation that I will be assigned a new doctor any time soon. PEI can develop policies and incentives to recruit and retain physicians and other health-care professionals, but this is a national crisis. Canada trains and retains too few doctors to meet the needs of a population that is both growing and aging.
I remember living in Ontario in the early 1990s when then premier Bob Rae announced a 12 per cent reduction in the number of students graduating from Ontario medical schools and thinking it was going to create challenges down the road.
As of 2020, Canada had 2.74 practicing physicians per 1,000 people which ranks number 23 when compared to other countries: Austria is number one at 5.32, almost twice as many as Canada.
Obtaining a seat in medical school is extraordinarily difficult with only 7.5 per cent of applicants accepted. Once students graduate they must then compete for a residency in their preferred area of specialization. Some provinces are working hard to expand access to training, for example PEI’s 20-seat faculty of medicine is slated to open in 2024 and Ontario recently announced a plan to add 160 new medical school seats and 295 postgraduate seats.
Individual provinces can work to improve access to training, but doctors are mobile and the location of their home province might not reflect where they choose to work. For example, PEI has the most reserved medical seats per capita in Canada but the fewest physicians per 100,000.
Both health care and higher education are provincial jurisdictions, but I think the federal government should play a role in addressing this crisis. Instead of having provinces and territories competing with each other, the federal government could help co-ordinate and fund training, and oversee the review of foreign credentials, so we can more quickly integrate physicians trained outside of Canada.
I fear the next few years are going to be difficult. Even Islanders with a family doctor experience barriers to receiving timely health care. I hope that in our scramble to address immediate problems, we won’t forget this crisis was decades in the making, and it will take a long-term strategy, investment and patience to fix it.
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