By Al Beeber - Lethbridge Herald on January 24, 2024.
The Alberta health care system is facing a mass casualty event that needs immediate help from the province to stop the bleeding.
That was the message from Alberta Medical Association Paul Parks on Tuesday in a media briefing on the health of family physician practices in the province.
The AMA conducted a survey from Jan. 16-19 of family physician and generalist clinics and Parks, an emergency department physician in Medicine Hat, said the data is “unsettling.”
Parks has for months been talking about the problems faced in primary care with practices struggling to keep their lights on and how Alberta is falling behind other provinces “where other governments are moving quickly and decisively to shore up primary care,” he told media.
As many as 800,000 Albertans don’t have access to their own family physician and the AMA has been working urgently with the province to find solutions, Parks said.
The AMA is extremely concerned about time passing for deeply distressed clinics, he said.
The survey of family medicine specialists and rural generalists shows “it isn’t just bad, it’s dire,” he said of the situation they’re facing.
“And I’m not even sure if ‘dire’ captures it, it looks disastrous,” Parks said.
The survey showed that 91 per cent of family doctors are concerned that their practices, which operate as small businesses, won’t survive if the situation doesn’t change.
“Without immediate support, one in five family specialists say their practices will not make it for six months and in fact eight per cent have indicated that they won’t make it for three months. And only 21 per cent feel they’ll be able to hang in for the next year,” said Parks.
“What’s happening as a result, 61 per cent of family physicians are considering leaving Alberta’s healthcare system, either through early retirement or for looking for work in another province. And if they do stay, many are considering making changes in order for their practice to survive. Six in 10 family doctors are considering significant changes in service delivery in their practices and 54 per cent say they will have to stop or reduce how much comprehensive cradle-to-grave type family medicine care that they are providing,” said Parks.
Nearly 80 per cent of those physicians say those changes in reducing comprehensive care will have to happen within 12 months because of financial pressures on their practices, said Parks.
“Family medicine isn’t on the brink of collapse anymore. I think it’s safe to say it’s crumbling around us as we speak. Those doctors love what they do, they train long and hard to become family specialists and they have patients that they want to care throughout the patient’s journey and their life” but now they’re making difficult decisions with the circumstances they are facing, Parks said.
“They feel it’s no longer possible to provide that kind of care.”
The AMA has been working with the government on solutions and family medicine physician leaders have developed detailed proposals to get Alberta out of the situation, he added.
Government has shown it can see there is a crisis in access to family medicine, added Parks, and it needs to make some difficult decisions and move on primary care.
But the AMA needs government to act immediately, Parks said.
In December, the federal government announced $100 million in funding to stabilize family medical practices and that money needs to be delivered now, said the AMA president.
“We considered it great news and an excellent targeted investment and a downpayment on what’s needed to just stabilize and retain the physicians we have currently so we can work on a funding model going forward,” said Parks.
But “not one cent” has reached family physicians and no money will get to them before the spring, several months from now, he said.
“Immediate stabilization is a part of our three-phase proposal from doctors to government and it includes a new physician comprehensive care model that we developed and have given to the Minister of Health,” he said.
The Minister has committed to considering the elements of our proposal” and the AMA needs her to upheld that promise which was made when the AMA and government signed a memorandum of understanding.
“We need to see the federal money flow immediately to physician practices,” Parks said.
And it needs to see continuing support for family medicine practices so they can stay viable until the new payment model is developed and implemented.
The new model will provide the lifelong care Albertans want and need “in a team environment and to guide them through every step in every year of their health care journey,” he added.