Urgent action overdue on physician access crisis

The departure of three Charlottetown doctors from their practices highlights the ongoing, and growing, physician access crisis on Prince Edward Island, adding thousands more Islanders to the officially recognized 23,000 names on the patient registry list (Doctors leaving practice, June 14). All Islanders are hurting, even the fortunate ones who have family doctors, due to wait times, and delayed treatment. Rural Islanders are further threatened with ER and hospital closures.

Although the physician shortage has been developing over the past two decades, evidence of an impending crisis in our province became clear with the release of a Medical Society of P.E.I. survey in 2019 (CBC News: Compass, April 9, 2019) revealing that 56 per cent of Island physicians planned to reduce or leave their practice over the following five years. More specifically, 13 per cent considered leaving the province, 19 per cent planned to retire, and 24 per cent intended to reduce their practices. The official patient registry count at the time was roughly 13,000 Islanders.

A plan was presented to King government cabinet ministers and Opposition leaders to address the impending physician access crisis that included:

  •  Accelerated physician recruitment.
  •  Doubling (from five) and later tripling medical residency positions.
  •  Commencing negotiations for the establishment of a medical school at UPEI.

The plan, if adopted, was to deal with the predictable physician crisis in the immediate, intermediate and longer term respectively. Charlottetown city council endorsed the plan (Stamp of approval, The Guardian, June 18, 2019), followed by Summerside and many Island municipalities who also had concerns regarding the then current and looming further physician shortage across the province.

The King government has made some effort with physician recruitment, but has fallen far short of the outward flux and growing need for Island physicians.

In 2020 Health Minister James Aylward committed to adding two residency seats for newly graduated medical students, again not enough to fill the need for full-fledged practising physicians in the intermediate term.

Finally, Premier Dennis King announced his support for a medical faculty at the University of Prince Edward Island on Oct. 10, 2021, after much collaboration, planning, and organizational work had taken place by the university administration and its faculties.

The UPEI medical school in itself will be an asset, not only with its Island physician graduates, but also in the recruitment and retention of physicians. Up to 10,000 Islanders will have access to the associated medical clinic. Island physicians will be supported by having locally available continuing medical education (CME), retaining and enhancing the family doctor complement.

Promises of medical homes and alternative health care models may help eventually, but urgent action by the King government on the physician access crisis is overdue. The dire circumstance we face must be met with accelerated recruitment, a meaningful retention strategy, and a family physician integration program to Island communities without further delay.

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Herb Dickieson

Herb Dickieson

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