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Primary care in 'critical condition,' Alberta doctors group head says, citing survey

CALGARY — The president of the Alberta Medical Association says a recent survey of family doctors suggests primary care in the province is in critical condition and needs immediate attention. Dr.

CALGARY — The president of the Alberta Medical Association says a recent survey of family doctors suggests primary care in the province is in critical condition and needs immediate attention.

Dr. Paul Parks shared the results of the online survey, taken between Jan. 16 and 19, on the health of family physician and rural generalist clinics in Alberta.

"This is a mass casualty event. This is a trauma … the patient is bleeding out, bleeding to death right now," Parks, who is also an emergency physician, told reporters during an online news conference Tuesday. "In a trauma … the very first thing you do is stop the bleeding.

"The patient is in critical condition and, if we don't act, I am very worried and very concerned what it will look like."

Parks said the association has been working with the province to address ongoing issues in primary care, but it wanted to get a sense from physicians about how bad it is for their clinics across the province with the survey.

"It isn't just bad, it's dire," he said. "In fact, I'm not sure dire captures it. It's disastrous."

The survey, conducted by ThinkHQ, suggests 91 per cent of the 1,375 doctors who responded are concerned about the continued financial viability of their practices and 52 per cent are very concerned.

Six in 10 family doctors surveyed said the financial state of their medical practices is poor, while fewer than one in 10 said their practices are performing well financially.

Twenty per cent of family doctors believe their medical practices are unlikely to be financially sound beyond six months, the survey suggests.

In addition, 61 per cent of the province's family physicians are considering leaving the Alberta health-care system either by early retirement or by looking for work in another province or country.

Parks said those who do stay are considering changes to their clinics.

"Family medicine isn't on the brink of collapse anymore. It's fair to say it's crumbling around our feet."

Parks said it's time for the provincial government to take action, before it's too late.

Alberta Health Minister Adriana LaGrange said in a statement that family physicians play a crucial role in the province's health-care system and the government is committed to addressing the challenges.

It said the government announced $200 million over two years to help family doctors from a $1.06-billion, three-year agreement with the federal government finalized in December.

"Once the funding flows from the federal government to the province in April 2024, Alberta's government remains committed to providing this funding as soon as possible," said the statement from LaGrange.

Alberta, like other provinces, is facing an acute shortage of family physicians, a problem that has a domino effect through the health system as more patients without primary care seek aid in crowded emergency departments.

Parks said other provinces have started to address the issue and Alberta will lose doctors to those areas.

"We are calling on the government to take immediate steps to halt permanent damage to primary care," he said.

"Practices are drowning and need some stabilization."

The statement from Alberta Health said the government and the medical association "ratified a new agreement in September 2022. The agreement included an estimated $780 million over four years to help stabilize the health-care system, ease the pressures facing many physicians and increase support."

It added that Alberta provides some of the highest level of compensation and benefits for physicians in Canada, and that there has been a net increase of 331 physicians from 2022 to 2023.

Alberta Health said, however, it will consider the survey as part of its work to improve the health-care system, which is expected to start this spring with the dismantling of Alberta Health Services.

The polling industry's professional body, the Canadian Research Insights Council, said online surveys cannot be assigned a margin of error because they do not randomly sample the population.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 23, 2024.

Colette Derworiz, The Canadian Press