More than 125,000 people in Newfoundland and Labrador — about 24 per cent of the population — don't have a family doctor, according to the latest poll by the province's medical association.
That number is up five percentage points from a poll last summer, which equals about 24,500 more people who have lost a doctor in the past year.
Dr. Susan MacDonald, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association, says the problem has been festering for years — and it's only getting worse.
"We really didn't pay attention to the crisis, which we knew was going to happen, and we've been calling on government for years and years and years," MacDonald said Wednesday. "The writing was on the wall, and nothing happened."
The provincial government has recently taken action to combat the family doctor shortage, but Health Minister John Haggie said it will take time to see the programs make a dent in the problem.
"I think it's premature to say that things haven't worked because they really haven't had time to work yet as of yet," Haggie said Thursday in response to the NLMA poll.
The health minister touted initiatives like Patient Connect N.L. — a system aimed at matching people without family doctors to collaborative-care teams in their region. It's only active in the Eastern Health region as of now, and 13,000 people have registered. The program will expand to the rest of Newfoundland in the next two or three weeks, said Haggie, who didn't indicate when it would include Labrador.
Premier Andrew Furey said the addition of a deputy minister assigned to recruitment and retention of health-care workers, who started this week, should make a big difference in the short term as well.
"We listened, we heard, we acted, and we will continue to do so," Furey said.
Opposition leader David Brazil, meanwhile, said the province can do more in the immediate term, and called on the government to enact short term measures from the soon-to-be-released health accord aimed at improving primary care in the province.
"We would hope government will do whatever needs to be done," said Brazil. "If it requires coming back to [the House of Assembly] to change a piece of legislation to move something along, we'll be here on a moment's notice."
MacDonald agreed it's too early to judge the success of recent initiatives but he blamed a lack of action before now for the increasing number of people without a doctor.
Rural feeling it worse, survey shows
The problem is particularly severe in central Newfoundland, where the NLMA estimates 37 per cent of the population doesn't have a family doctor. MacDonald wants to see more done to target problem areas with urgent needs.
The survey, conducted by Narrative Research, spoke with 400 people in the province. It has a margin of plus or minus 4.9 per cent, 19 times out of 20. It estimates 31 per cent of people in the Western and Labrador-Grenfell health regions, and 14 per cent of the Avalon Peninsula, are without a family doctor.
MacDonald said the rural pockets with higher numbers of unattached patients will result in higher costs for health care in the long run.
"In our rural populations, we have some of the sickest people in this province," she said. "Those are not simple cases to be managing. There's multiple medications, and it doesn't take much to upset the apple cart and have those people crash and end up in hospital or a tertiary care centre here in St. John's where the care is much, much more expensive and far more complex and difficult than it would have been."
NLMA members went without a contract with the provincial government for four years. Haggie said the "tone has changed" since an agreement was reached in January and both sides have been able to collaborate better to find solutions.
MacDonald said progress is being made but the situation needs to be treated with more urgency.
"Things need to move a little bit quicker," she said. "We've got some ideas on the table and things have started, but it's a little bit, maybe, too late to turn the tides for at least a while. We're going to suffer with these issues until things get moving."