N.L. physicians' group calls for 243 family doctor hires over next decade

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — The organization representing doctors in Newfoundland and Labrador says the province needs to hire at least 243 additional family physicians over the next 10 years in order to keep up with the population's needs.

A report released Wednesday by the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association made projections based on shortages in the current workforce, the number of aging adults, increasing disease rates and anticipated physician retirements.

It advised that 60 full-time physicians should be hired immediately to address the current shortage and projected a need for about 20 more hires per year for the next 10 years.

The association said it commissioned the Nova Scotia firm Health Intelligence Inc. to gather evidence on the state of family medicine in the province.

Researcher and physician David Peachey of Health Intelligence, who has conducted similar studies in other provinces and territories, said the findings show a particularly acute primary care shortage in Newfoundland and Labrador.

"There is no question now, that going forward, primary care deficits are very real," he said Wednesday. "They are more real and more severe here than elsewhere that I've seen in Canada."

Peachey said the target of 60 hires next year may not be "realizable," but it's important to set goals based on calculated need.

He said the overall 10-year target for hires is achievable, factoring the savings to the health-care system and long-term improvements to people's health when they have a regular physician.

"The earlier you catch things, the rewards down the road are really high," he said.

A poll commissioned by the association earlier this year found one in five residents in the province does not have a family doctor. The report said the current shortage has put additional strain on emergency rooms.

The association is calling on the provincial government to develop a human resource plan for family physicians to tackle the shortage.

It also noted the importance of strengthening recruitment efforts to retain graduates of Memorial University's faculty of medicine. The report said there is potential to recruit 30 doctors per year who have completed a residency at Memorial University, but in reality, the numbers have declined "to eight or nine annually."

Medical association executive Robert Thompson said some residents are recruited to work in other provinces where they are offered arrangements to pay off debts and other incentives.

"We don't think that we're competitive," he said.

He said incentives for residents and prospective hires should be "enhanced," suggesting more bursaries, signing bonuses and mentorship with experienced physicians during the first year.

The report did not analyze the cost of hiring more physicians, with the association saying policy and budget decisions are up to the province.

The province's Department of Health and Community Services confirmed Wednesday that officials had been briefed on the report. In a brief statement, it said it "appreciates" the work and is already working with regional health authorities and the university to find solution.

"We know there is an issue with access to family doctors in this province," the statement said. "We intend to continue working with the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association to ensure increased access and services."

A spokeswoman said Health Minister John Haggie would offer further comment next week after reviewing the report.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 27, 2019.

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press