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Not out of the woods yet

Last year, Canada saw the biggest increase in new physicians in 20 years. About 2,700 extra practitioners brought the national total to around 68,000, according to figures released by CIHI, the Canadian Institute for Health Information.

Most of the new physicians, about 2,300, were graduates of Canadian medical schools. A few more doctors returned to Canada than went abroad in 2009, perhaps partly due to the weakening of the US dollar. And about 300 new doctors were international medical graduates.

Until about 2004, the number of physicians was barely keeping pace with the rising population. From 2004 to 2008, the rate of increase in physicians was double that of the general population. The 2009 increase was three times faster than the rate of increase of the population.

Clearly, steps are being taken to address Canada’s chronic physician shortage. But a crunch is still coming, and this may not be enough to divert it.

For the first time in decades, the average age of physicians didn’t increase in 2009. But it didn’t decrease either, hovering at 49.7 years. Is there any other job on earth where the average age is 50? Maybe being a nun. Meanwhile, the population ages apace. Older patients mean greater need, older doctors mean less provision.

This is not to suggest that older doctors work less. On the contrary, many do longer hours than their younger colleagues. And many are delaying retirement. Quite a few may have been burned in the stock market collapse, and the 2009 figures may partly reflect their decision to work a few more years to replenish the retirement fund. Others aren’t retiring simply because they can’t find a replacement to take on their patients. Of physicians aged 70-79 in 2004, most were still working in 2008, a feat of endurance surely unmatched in any other profession.

But retirement must come eventually. And with an average professional age of 50, the numbers leaving are going to be significant.

At the same time, their young replacements appear to be working shorter hours. Doctors today want a life as well as a career. And the dramatic increase in female doctors means more family responsibilities – women doctors average about 8 hours less work per week. They have also proved more likely, in the past, to drop the profession altogether. Of the new class of 2009, 52% of general practitioners and 45% of specialists were women.

(Ratios of women to men, strangely, vary quite sharply from one province to another. In Quebec, for example, the numbers are almost even, while in Manitoba male doctors outnumber female by 2-to-1.)

Family practice continues to get short-changed, though the picture is improving. In 2004, just 23% of medical students said they wanted to go into family practice. In 2009, that had jumped to 33%. But it needs to be 40% to meet the actual need.

And why is the need growing faster than the population? Because, of course, of the ageing of Canada. In 1921, one Canadian in 20 was aged over 65. Today, it’s one in eight. In 2026, it will hit one in five. And the “oldest old”, the 85-plus, is the fastest-growing group of all. Consumption of healthcare is astronomically higher in these age brackets. We’re not out of the woods yet.
Owen Dyer