'Tsunami is here': Saskatchewan seeing a decline in active family doctors

·3 min read

REGINA — For nearly 10 years, Dr. Tomi Mitchell has operated a family clinic, but she says she's now at a breaking point.

Within 90 days, she will be closing the Pasqua South Medical Centre in Regina to focus more on consulting and her two children.

"The system is broken, and I cannot carry the system on two cents," she said.

Mitchell, who has been a family doctor since 2011, said she can no longer sustain her clinic because of pressures on health care which were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mitchell said she gets paid a $30 flat fee for every patient she sees. Out of that, she says, she has to pay staff and cover bills and other administrative costs.

"Some days you actually make less than minimum wage."

Finding qualified health-care workers has also become too much of a challenge.

"Trying to find trained employees in a medical clinic is hard. Trying to find physicians who actually want to stay in Saskatchewan is almost next to impossible," Mitchell said. "They come here, and they may leave after doing their three-year return-of-service program."

Mitchell isn't the only family doctor who is leaving her practice behind.

Data from Saskatchewan's Medical Services Branch shows that at the end of last March, there were 454 family doctors practising in Regina and Saskatoon — a decrease of 43 physicians, or 8.7 per cent, from the previous year.

The number of family doctors in rural areas was 235, a decrease of eight physicians, or 3.3 per cent.

"We are losing. The tsunami is here. The poop has already hit the fan," Mitchell said.

Fewer family doctors has resulted in patients waiting longer to get help and physicians taking on more pressures with little support from the government.

"I literally carried the health region's responsibility on a shoestring budget … I don't have the resources to do this anymore," she said.

"Leadership has told us we're not exhausted. We're not burnt out. As front-line workers ... we're like, 'Really? Are you even listening? We've been saying this from the beginning of the pandemic.'"

Health Minister Paul Merriman said health care in the province has challenges, but the Saskatchewan Party government is working to address them.

"The best thing I can say is stay tuned and look for budget (day)," Merriman said Thursday.

The province's 2022-23 budget is to be tabled March 23.

Merriman did say the province is looking to recruit doctors from out of province and will provide more education funding for health care.

But Mitchell, who said she has seen problems persist for 10 years, doesn't think it's enough.

"We're top-heavy with administration and policies, but low on the bottom side," she said.

NDP Opposition Leader Ryan Meili said the problem is a direct reflection of Premier Scott Moe's policies. the number of family doctors started declining in 2018, the year Moe first took office, Meili said.

Data from Saskatchewan's Medical Services Branch shows there's been a sustained three-year decline since 2018.

During 2018-19, there were 982 active family doctors in Saskatchewan, but in 2020-21 that dropped to 900.

"Having a shortage is extremely problematic. There's a real risk of a vicious cycle where you see doctors publicly saying I've had enough of a government treating me badly," said Meili, who is himself a physician.

"How do we then say to new grads, 'Stay.' How do we say to doctors across the country, 'Come here and make a life here in Saskatchewan when the best and brightest in Saskatchewan are saying we've had enough?'"

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 10, 2022.

Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press

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