'Grave danger' of further shortages unless more done to attract, retain physicians: Doctors Manitoba

Doctors Manitoba released five recommendations for the province on Friday, including suggestions that the province try to lure more physicians by expanding training, making recruitment efforts more straightforward and coming up with financial incentives for out-of-province candidates. (Minerva Studio/Shutterstock - image credit)
Doctors Manitoba released five recommendations for the province on Friday, including suggestions that the province try to lure more physicians by expanding training, making recruitment efforts more straightforward and coming up with financial incentives for out-of-province candidates. (Minerva Studio/Shutterstock - image credit)

A Manitoba physician advocacy organization is recommending five steps it hopes will help the province recruit and retain staff in a health-care system that continues to lose workers and suffer widespread burnout.

The province should try to lure more physicians by expanding training, making recruitment efforts more straightforward and coming up with financial incentives to smooth out-of-province candidates' transition to Manitoba, Doctors Manitoba said in recommendations for the provincial government, which it shared in a news release Friday.

"There must be a strong, immediate focus on retaining the physicians," Doctors Manitoba president Dr. Candace Bradshaw said at a joint news conference with Manitoba Chambers of Commerce.

"We're in a grave danger in seeing many of them leaving or reducing their practice, and there are short-term actions that can demonstrate to these physicians that things are changing."

The two organizations highlighted recruitment and retention efforts tailored for northern and rural Manitoba, though they say the recommendations apply in Winnipeg as well.

Doctors Manitoba has consistently raised alarm over continued staff shortages, particularly of nurses but also physicians and allied health-care positions, amid pandemic burnout and an associated departure to the private sector, other jurisdictions or away from health care entirely.

'Never seen burnout and distress this high'

Bradshaw said working as a physician in Manitoba can be "tremendously rewarding" but noted half of doctors in the province are reporting high levels of burnout, according to a recent Doctors Manitoba survey of members.

"I've never before been more concerned about losing doctors," she said.

"I've never seen burnout and distress this high. It's a very serious threat to physician retention and recruitment. However, I am confident we can turn this around together."

WATCH | Doctors Manitoba president says more to do to 'woo' doctors to rural, northern communities:

Her colleague and former Doctors Manitoba president Dr. Kristjan Thompson, an emergency room physician at St. Boniface Hospital, this week described considering quitting for the first time amid "devastating" impacts he's seeing in the workplace tied to staffing shortages.

This week, Doctors Manitoba also released a report suggesting the province has the lowest number of family doctors per capita in Canada and ranks third-last in the number of physicians overall per capita.

The trend holds in Manitoba's four rural health regions, Bradshaw said, where there are fewer physicians per capita than the average for similar jurisdictions across the country.

The group says two in five Manitoba physicians are planning to retire, leave or reduce clinic hours in the next three years.

Other recommendations

The recommendations out Friday include addressing burnout, which the organization terms "the single biggest risk to physicians leaving practice," by cutting down their administrative work, reviewing on-call expectations and improving engagement.

Doctors Manitoba also suggests freeing up physicians to spend more time on patient care and seeking care guidance with other doctors. That could be aided through the creation of a centralized service that connects rural doctors with specialists to advise and help co-ordinate patient transfers, said Bradshaw.

The province should also focus on offering better peer support and mentorship, assist doctors with infrastructure-related costs and enhance the physician retention program, the group says.

Manitoba could also improve how it supports communities and their chambers of commerce in recruitment and retention of physicians and their families.

"If we want to compete, we need to get better organized to show physicians the full package both for them and their families — the job, the lifestyle, the opportunities," said Bradshaw.

"We're a small province and we must do better than our competitors."

Economic issue for rural Manitoba: chambers president

The president and chief executive officer of the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce president echoed that sentiment.

Chuck Davidson said physician recruitment and retention in rural and northern Manitoba is connected to economic potential and is "an issue that influences Manitoba's ability to grow and to thrive."

He cited a recent report by the Association of Manitoba Municipalities that suggested more than 90 per cent of communities surveyed were experiencing doctor shortages, and 95 per cent are allocating financial resources to recruit and retain health-care workers locally.

"There are, and will continue to be, considerable implications for rural and northern communities if these trends continue," he said.

"Reliable, quality care is essential to rural and north economies. Without a strong health-care system we simply cannot support the attraction of new residents and new businesses. We can't promote tourism with confidence and we restrict Manitobans' ability to age in place."

They stem from a rural health summit attended by more than 100 doctors, health-care system executives and community or business leaders. A followup survey of members of Doctors Manitoba and the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce elicited 450 responses that supported the suggestions, Doctors Manitoba said.

Walther Bernal/CBC
Walther Bernal/CBC

Health Minister Audrey Gordon spoke at that summit and is currently reviewing the "many innovative" recommendations, the province said.

A spokesperson said in a statement the Progressive Conservative government is working with a human resources task force, as well as a Shared Health recruitment group, and "will be rolling out a comprehensive action plan in the next few weeks to address recruitment, training and retention" that considers the recommendations of physicians, nurses and allied health-care workers.

Other provinces have started to dangle more cash to entice health-care staff.

Saskatchewan is offering a $50,000 incentive to nurses and nurse practitioners who commit to three years in certain rural and remote areas of the province.

Prince Edward Island is offering certain health-care workers, ranging from nurses to home support workers, up to $3,500 to commit to one year of work. A further $3,000 is granted to staff filling key vacancies.

Continued pay bump discouraging: MAHCP

Jason Linklater, Manitoba Association of Health Care Professionals president, said the provincial government needs to act quickly. It doesn't help that some allied health-care workers have gone several years without a pay bump because their last contract expired, he said.

"We've had people leave not only for the same type of work in another province, but we're having people leaving for entirely different careers," Linklater said.

The provincial Liberals want the province to act on new recruitment and retention programs, but also support the initiatives already in place.

At question period on Friday, Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont noted the province spent nearly $1 million less on its Physician Recruitment and Retention Plan in 2021-22 than the year before, according to Manitoba Health's annual report. The program pays doctors for at least five years of service.

"The fact that they have one [program] and they haven't put more money into it tells you just how out of touch" this government is, Lamont told reporters.