Alberta must offer higher pay to keep scarce supply of oncologists, medical association says

Alberta cancer patients are waiting 13 weeks to see a radiation oncologist and eight weeks for a medical oncologist, according to the Alberta Medical Association.  (CBC News - image credit)
Alberta cancer patients are waiting 13 weeks to see a radiation oncologist and eight weeks for a medical oncologist, according to the Alberta Medical Association. (CBC News - image credit)

The Alberta Medical Association says the provincial government needs to improve pay for oncologists to fix what it is calling a "dangerously overstrained and under-resourced" cancer care system in Alberta.

The number of oncologists is not keeping up with the aging population and the surge of newcomers moving to Alberta, the AMA says. Meanwhile, cancer cases are increasing.

"We feel that we're kind of at this crisis point where it's really critical people understand what we're facing," said Dr. Paul Parks, president of the AMA, and an emergency room physician in Medicine Hat.

Only 25 new oncologists enter the Canadian workforce each year so they are in high demand across Canada and the rest of the world. He says Alberta will need about 50 extra oncologists over the next three years to keep up.

"It's such a finite resource, these skills and human beings with this skill set, that right now they can choose where they want to work and and of course they're going to go where it's competitive and most enticing to them to work," Parks said.

"We need the minister and the premier and the whole government to say yes, this is a priority, we have to invest in it now, absolutely need to invest in it now."

Delays getting treatment

Oncologists have been trying to reach an agreement with Alberta Health Services over the last five months. Parks said they are concerned that compensation isn't high enough to compete with provinces like Ontario and B.C. which are aggressively recruiting.

The number of oncologists is not keeping up with Alberta's population growth. In 2013, 102 oncologists practised in Alberta. In 2022, the number increased by 20 per cent to 122. The number of new cancer cases increased by 40 per cent over those nine years.

The AMA says patients are waiting eight to 13 weeks for an initial assessment by an oncologist. The five most frequently performed cancer surgeries are bladder, colorectal, breast, lung and prostrate procedures. Only 60 per cent are performed within recommended timelines.

Alberta-trained oncologists are leaving the province for greener pastures. Over the past four years, only one of eight radiation oncologists stayed in Alberta. Of the 17 medical oncologists trained here, just two stuck around.

The AMA fears the physician shortage that has left 650,000 to 800,000 Albertans without a family doctor means patients won't be diagnosed until their cancers have progressed so far that their chance of survival has diminished.

The province's desire to break Alberta Health Services into four separate organizations, as outlined in Bill 22, is creating additional uncertainty and confusion for physicians, the AMA says.

Problems with Alberta

Alberta Health Services said that it continues to "aggressively" recruit for all front-line medical staff, including oncologists. Spokesperson Kerry Williamson said 17.2 full-time equivalent cancer physicians have been recruited to start work in the 2024-25 fiscal year.

The new Arthur J.E. Child Comprehensive Cancer Centre in Calgary is expected to attract more physicians once it opens this year. AHS is doing recruitment in the U.S. and U.K. and working with post-secondary institutions to set up supports for practicums.

Health Minister Adriana LaGrange said in a statement to CBC News that the challenges in Alberta are shared across Canada.

"We continue to work diligently with AHS to recruit oncology positions in various locations across Alberta," she said.

Dr. Luanne Metz, NDP MLA for Calgary-Varsity and the Opposition health critic, is familiar with the issues facing Alberta oncologists.

Metz said oncologists are facing a number of issues. The Cross Cancer Clinic in Edmonton is over capacity so there is no room for newcomers to set up practice.

Metz said the millions spent on reorganizing the health system, as proposed by Bill 22, would be better spent improving conditions for medical staff.

All these factors are encouraging new graduates to take a pass on Alberta, Metz said.

"Why would they stay in a system in chaos at a lower rate of pay than they can get if they go elsewhere?" she asked. "Particularly to British Columbia where they've opened up a number of new cancer facilities and are like a sponge at taking on new graduate oncologists."

Parks said once cancer patients get into Alberta's health-care system they receive excellent care. He said the province needs to the workforce to ensure they are hitting benchmarks for getting people the treatment they need before their cancer gets worse.