Doctor shortage persists at Southern Alberta clinic after local GP starts

Pincher Creek, Alta's medical clinic and hospital welcomed a general physician in the new year, blunting the sting of the community’s persistent doctor shortage.

Dr. Mark Stephens, a former paramedic with Pincher Creek Emergency Services, brings the Associate Clinic’s full-time GP roster to six. The clinic boasted roughly twice that number at peak staffing levels, executive director Jeff Brockman told Shootin’ the Breeze Thursday, Jan. 12.

“We’re rebuilding. We need to celebrate every success, but we’re still actively looking for more doctors,” Brockman said.

The clinic continues to serve patients living in a broad catchment area centred in town and the surrounding MD. That radius hits Lundbreck and Burmis to the west and as far as the Fort Macleod area to the east.

To meet their needs, more rural doctors like Stephens need to stay in the province, Brockman explained.

But Stephens is a rare find. Before he went to med school in his mid 40s, the longtime Pincher Creek resident said he’d served as a paramedic in “just about every town in southwest Alberta.”

He’d thrived as a community paramedic in nearby Lethbridge, and he might have stayed in the profession had he not taken a posting near Fort McMurray.

Stephens said the move took him to a clinic that was remotely supervised by doctors, and his extra responsibilities reframed the way he thought about medicine.

“Clinical decision-making in the absence of a real nearby hospital was exhilarating. I really enjoyed it.”

He started to think less in terms of treating symptoms (“stabilizing and transporting,” in paramedic jargon) and more in terms of finding root causes. Then in his mid 40s, Stephens said he came to feel that practising medicine as a GP would be more fulfilling.

“Surprisingly, my wife supported that idea,” he joked.

Stephens had met his wife, paramedic and firefighter Nellie Maund-Stephens, while the two served together at PCES.

She followed Mark to Belize, where he started medical school in 2013.

“That was tricky. We burned up our savings fast and then we started accumulating debt,” Stephens said.

That tracks with the Association of Faculties of Medicine of Canada’s finding that Canadian MDs leave med school with an average debt of nearly $85,000 for tuition alone. New doctors’ “non-education-related debt” tops out at an average of roughly $80,000, according to the AFMC website.

Most grads start out in urban centres. Around 750 docs were practising in rural Alberta as of 2020 — about seven per cent of doctors working across the province, according to the Government of Alberta’s website.

Stephens is still establishing his practice, and while he hasn’t resolved any long-term career goals, he certainly has no plans to leave Pincher Creek any time soon.

Laurie Tritschler, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Shootin' the Breeze