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More doctors alone can't fix B.C.'s health-care system: report

A new report found that B.C. has the highest ratio of doctors to patients in Canada — but that people still find it hard to access them due to high demand. (Kamon Wongnon/Shutterstock - image credit)
A new report found that B.C. has the highest ratio of doctors to patients in Canada — but that people still find it hard to access them due to high demand. (Kamon Wongnon/Shutterstock - image credit)

British Columbia has more family doctors per capita than it did 40 years ago, according to a new report, but its lead author says trying to find one or get an appointment can still feel as difficult as competing for tickets to Taylor Swift's highly sought-after Eras Tour.

B.C. has 270 doctors for every 100,000 people in 2022, up from 162 doctors per capita in 1976, according to data from the Canadian Institute for Health Information shared in a new report from charity Generation Squeeze on Thursday.

It's tied with Nova Scotia for the highest rate in Canada, according to the report, and well above the national average of 244 doctors per 100,000.

The data may be surprising given close to one million British Columbians are estimated to be without a family doctor, says co-author Dr. Paul Kershaw, but he says it indicates that hiring more doctors isn't a silver bullet to reduce wait times and improve patient care and outcomes.

"Medical care doesn't even account for a quarter of what makes us healthy ... our health begins where we're born, grow, live, work and age," said Kershaw, who is also the founder of non-profit Generation Squeeze.

"And that means when we can't access affordable and safe homes, when we can't access quality child care ... those are the things that are going to make us get injured or fall sick and have us needing more time in our clinics and our emergency rooms."

Kershaw says while there are more family doctors practising in B.C. now than 40 years ago, more and more people need their services.

A letter to doctors in B.C. on Sept. 3 from provincial health officials urges them to return to in-person patient care.
A letter to doctors in B.C. on Sept. 3 from provincial health officials urges them to return to in-person patient care.

The study's co-author, Dr. Paul Kershaw, says focusing on investments in health care alone is not the solution, but that policymakers should fund other drivers of population health, like housing and child care. (Shutterstock )

"It's kind of like getting access to the doctors is like a Taylor Swift concert, because there's too many of us in the line," he added.

As the province prepares to table its budget next week, the report calls for governments of all levels to fund affordable housing, child care, education and living wages, which Kershaw says hasn't kept up, proportionately, with spending on medical care for when people are already sick.

"We've been growing the medical side disproportionately, but leaving the investments in child care slower, in housing slower, in poverty reduction slower," the Generation Squeeze founder said. "Solving the affordability crisis is as much a health issue as it is a wallet issue."

CBC reached out to the provincial Ministry of Health for comment on the report but did not hear back before publication.

Patients displaying more complex symptoms

While B.C. has more doctors per capita now than in the last four decades, the numbers don't paint the full picture, according to Dr. Joshua Greggain, the former president of Doctors of B.C.

"I acknowledge that the number looks to be more than we've ever had before but ... the patients have never been older or more complicated," he told CBC News.

"Medicine is more complicated than it was 50 years ago in the '70s or even '80s ... and so it takes more people to provide that level of complexity."

A recent study found patients in B.C. are coming to doctors with increasingly complex conditions.

The study, published in the JAMA Internal Medicine journal last month, found that patients arriving in B.C. hospitals are older, have more complex medical needs, and are on more prescription medications than two decades ago.

Greggain said family physicians in B.C. are attempting to keep up with more patients with complex needs, but it would likely take time for investments into the health-care system to bear fruit.

Concept fight against virus covid-19 corona virus, doctor or scientist in laboratory holding a syringe with liquid vaccines for children or older adults,Concept:diseases,medical care,science. Stock Photo ID: 1690179541
Concept fight against virus covid-19 corona virus, doctor or scientist in laboratory holding a syringe with liquid vaccines for children or older adults,Concept:diseases,medical care,science. Stock Photo ID: 1690179541

The former president of Doctors of B.C. says while more family doctors are in the system, patients are showing up with more complex conditions than before. (LookerStudio/Shutterstock)

He pointed to last year's implementation of a new compensation model for family doctors, as well as the creation of multidisciplinary clinics and community health centres, as steps towards a better primary care system.

"We are making progress in that regard. It's not happening immediately — because it's been 30 or 40 years of erosion," he said. "We're very optimistic that it's going to happen. It's just not happening fast enough quite yet today."