Hatters march along Fifth Street in front of Medicine Hat Regional Hospital to show their support for public health care and nurses in Alberta during Saturday’s National Nurses Week event.NEWS PHOTO RYAN MCCRACKEN

Original Published 09:09 May 17, 2022

By KENDALL KING, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Physician shortages could make access to medical care increasingly difficult for Hatters, local physicians warn, as at least four more physicians and one gynecologist prepare to leave Medicine Hat practices.

“Over the years, Medicine Hat has always been a little short (on physicians), but in the last year – and getting worse in the last few months – we’re really seeing a shortage,” Dr. Gerry Prince, a family physician, told the News.

Prince, who previously directed Medicine Hat’s maternity clinic, says availability of local family physicians, and OBGYNs specifically, does not meet community needs.

“In the last six months or so, we’ve seen a real uptick in people who are calling (searching for a family doctor) and are frantic,” Prince said. “They can’t find a doctor. They can’t find anybody in town who has room to have them in their practice.”

While Palliser Primary Care Network reports 57 family physicians operating in Medicine Hat, only one – Gebhardt Family Medical – is accepting new patients. Applicants there must be over the age of 16, as the practice’s head physician Dr. Ian Gebhardt is facing child sexual assault charges, and the practice is no longer prescribing narcotics aside from treating active cancer pain.

Limited care options have caused a backlog among local physicians, resulting in extended wait times and forcing many individuals to seek alternatives, Prince said.

“Most people resort to either go into a walk-in clinic – which are also extremely busy – or going to emergency, which is poor utilization of that resource,” said Prince. “It’s really not what emergency is designed for, but when they have no option, where do they go?”

Some Hatters even end up travelling outside the city for care, said Prince.

Carrie Longbottom, a resident of Medicine Hat who has had the same family physician since the age of 12, recently travelled to Lethbridge for medical care.

Before travelling to Lethbridge, Longbottom had attempted to see her family physician over the urgent health concern, but had to go to a walk-in clinic instead, as her family physician is booking an average of six weeks in advance. Walk-in clinic staff then referred her to Lethbridge where she received surgical treatment.

“It’s a do or die, or get better situation,” Longbottom told the News.

Longbottom says she’s fortunate to have both the time and financial means necessary to complete the trip, as well as pre-ops and post-ops. She doesn’t blame her family physician for the long wait times but is concerned over what consequences such delays might have for Hatters in need of timely care.

“There’s just not enough doctors here,” Longbottom said. “When I think of my own doctor, he’s helping every person who comes through (his door). He’s booked every appointment possible. It’s not like he’s only working half days. And as for more staff, they could hire secretaries and nurses, but they can’t help you like your doctor can. So that’s the issue. It’s truly just a shortage of doctors.”

Prince believes a variety of factors are contributing to the shortage. He estimates retirement and departure combined have reduced the city’s physician population by approximately 20 per cent in the past two years. He also points to low provincial physician recruitment numbers.

“All of our residency programs to provide training for new doctors were poorly recruited this year in Alberta,” Prince said. “The relationships with the government have been difficult for a couple of years. New grads are looking (for places to complete their residency) and they say, ‘We’re not confident you guys are going to fix those problems soon, so we will look elsewhere.’”

Low recruitment numbers provincially could hit smaller centres like Medicine Hat even harder, as recruits who do choose Alberta, are more likely drawn to larger centres with more opportunity. Already, Medicine Hat is seeing low numbers of recruits. Six of seven positions in Medicine Hat’s family practice training program, open to student physicians, are vacant this year.

Local doctor and Alberta Medical Association president of the section of emergency medicine, Dr. Paul Parks, believes poor relations between the province’s government and physicians are a major factor for low recruitment, as well as a mass exodus of physicians.

“If things don’t change with our government, our whole province will be in trouble,” Parks told the News. “We see a lot of unattached patients come into the emergency department (at Medicine Hat Regional Hospital). ‘Unattached’ means they don’t have a dedicated family doctor. We’re seeing more and more of them on a daily basis in the emerge … So, from what I can tell on our front lines, there is definitely going to be a problem with access to primary care in our community.”

The News reached out to Alberta Health Services for comment, but was directed to Palliser Primary Care Network.

This item reprinted with permission from Medicine Hat News, Medicine Hat, Alberta