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Retention key to stop ‘bleeding of physicians’ working in Alberta: Medical Association

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Albertan cities need to focus on retaining doctors currently working as much as new recruits, according to Dr. Vesta Michelle Warren, president of the Alberta Medical Association (AMA). 

“When you look at the changes over the past five years  — 2017-2021 — from data from the College of Physicians and Surgeons (CPSA), it definitely does support the fact that we are losing physicians in Alberta,” she said. “My concern is that we are going to continue to see a bleeding of physicians who are currently working in Alberta to other areas.”

Numbers of new registered physicians have been trending down, while the number of doctors leaving Alberta has been going up. Warren said Alberta saw 689 new registrants in the CPSA in 2017 and 2021 saw 613.

The amount who retired, left the province or quit practicing medicine has gone up significantly in that same time. She said 2017 saw 358 losses and 2021 saw 568.

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“So our net change in 2017 was an increase of 328 physicians — and in 2021, it was only 45,” Warren said. “There was a very small increase of physicians including medical students and residents in the past calendar year.”

Warren said CPSA data tends to lag behind and can sometimes be misleading because Albertan physicians can hold onto their license after moving provinces. She added the data, taken as a whole, shows a steady decline in practicing physicians in the province.

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“If you put the blinders on or you focus in too narrowly, you may be led to conclusions that are actually not correct,” she said.

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She noted many of the new registered physicians are people getting accepted into medical school and to residency.

High demand across the province and country creates a competitive market for recruiting and retaining healthcare professionals. Warren said many physicians are doing locum work, meaning temporary contracts. This allows more freedom and  less commitment to a practice — Warren said many new grads take on this work to help them choose where to settle down and what type of doctor they want to be.

“There’s lots of reasons why people will do it and I think as a new grad it makes sense but we are seeing a lot of physicians choosing to stay in that perhaps longer than they otherwise would,” she said.

Warren said many physicians did not return after working from home during the pandemic and many practices closed down from the stress of running a business and financial pressure.

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“They like that quality of life, they like being able to work from home, they like their relationships with their family and so even now that they can start seeing more people in person, they are not returning to that or if they are returning to in-person care they are doing so as a locum.”

Municipalities need to play a large role in recruiting and retention to combat shortages of doctors, according to Warren. She said it is important to give physicians a reason to stay when there is work to be found throughout the country.

RELATED: International graduates targeted to fill Lethbridge physician voids

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