The COVID-19 pandemic has put a lot of pressure on the health care system within Saskatchewan and across the country, forcing workers to leave the industry or move elsewhere.
Those pressures are being seen for residents around the province, as some are facing difficulties finding a family or personal physician due to doctors leaving or the inability to take in new patients.
John Gjevre, President of the Saskatchewan Medical Association (SMA), says there’s always going to be physician turnover, with some leaving for bigger city's within the province or moving out of Saskatchewan completely.
“In general things have been roughly stable in the sense that yes, we have people leaving but we also have people coming,” says Gjevre. “The biggest change of course is this time of the year because we have new residents who graduated from training programs both here and elsewhere who maybe are moving in or out of the province.”
A 2020-21 Medical Services Branch Annual Statistical Report, showed a total of 36 General Practitioners in the City of Moose Jaw for example, which is an increase of four from the previous year. Moose Jaw is a city of roughly 34,000 people – so, one general physician is responsible for roughly 944 patients, if every single resident has a family doctor.
In terms of retaining doctors within the province that have graduated or are looking to relocate elsewhere in Saskatchewan, the SMA does have programs in place.
“We have bursaries for medical students to encourage them to stay in the province. We also have a retention program that provides a small financial bonus for people to stay in the province for the long haul.”
SMA has a Retention Fund that provides financial rewards to physicians who practice in the province for an extended period of time. They must live in Saskatchewan, hold licensure with the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Saskatchewan, and provide insured clinical services in the province.
Though the SMA and the province have retention programs in place it is hard to compete with larger cities like Vancouver and Montreal.
“This is a wonderful province with many beautiful natural attractions and wonderful people, but when you have many physicians training in large cities like Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal to some extent we’re just not noticed on the national scene.”
The association also offers a Family Medicine Residents Bursary. This is given to residents who agree to service rural, regional, or Northern Saskatchewan communities.
“We want all members of the public to have a health care facility close to them so they can see a physician where they’re at rather than having to travel long distances to have health care.”
Successful candidates receive bursary support in the amount of $25,000 per year for a maximum of three years. Upon obtaining licensure, bursary recipients are required to provide full-time medical service in rural, northern, or regional Saskatchewan.
Gjevre alluded to a family physician crisis in Saskatchewan and across the country. In 2019, Statistics Canada reported that approximately 4.6 million Canadians did not have regular access to a primary care provider.
The Canadian Medical Association said in a release in May that in 2020, just over 1,400 family physicians exited the post-graduate training system to enter practice. Between 2015 and 2021, the percentage of medical graduates choosing family medicine fell from 38.5 per cent to 31.8. The average age of today’s family doctors is 49 years old.
Saskatchewan is trying to do its part to try and retain and recruit family physicians to the province. In their 2022-23 budget, they have included an additional $3.5 million to expand and enhance recruiting and retainment-focused programs.
The Ministry of Health has expanded the medical residency seats through the University of Saskatchewan from 120 to 128. Moose Jaw and Swift Current have been included to be training sites for post-graduate medical residents, which includes family medicine. Through the Saskatchewan International Physician Practice Assessment, 257 additional doctors are currently providing service in the province.
A statement from the Ministry of Health mentioned that this year’s budget included the development of a new and independent agency dedicated to the recruitment and retention of health human resources, including physicians.