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Doctors still in short supply

The Yukon’s doctor shortage is, apparently, chronic.The territory is barely holding its own in the national competition for doctors.

The Yukon’s doctor shortage is, apparently, chronic.

The territory is barely holding its own in the national competition for doctors.

Last year, the Yukon lost doctors, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information.

And, throughout the North, they are scarce.

So scarce, in fact, that all three territories are lumped together in national data.

Combined, there are 105 physicians in the Yukon, NWT and Nunavut.

While NWT gained nine doctors last year, Yukon and Nunavut each lost two, according to the institute.

Recently, however, the Yukon made that back, acquiring two more doctors.

Dr. Naresh Patel moved to the territory to open the Sudevi Family Clinic in early January.

“I was looking for work as a family physician in Canada and the Yukon seemed to offer the best opportunities,” Patel said in a government release.

He turned down a request for an interview.

Kenya-born Patel had been working in Hamilton, Ontario, for five years in an occupational health and safety clinic, before relocating to the North.

The other new physician is no stranger to the Yukon.

Long-time resident Xui Mei Zhang, co-owner of the East West Clinic, is currently in Medicine Hat, Alberta, completing the final phase of a training course to bring her in line with requirements to practise medicine in Canada.

She could not be reached for comment.

Formally trained in China, Zhang was accepted into a one-year, fast-tracking program, called the Western Alliance for Assessment of International Physicians.

The program is tailored to license foreign-trained doctors, who have the requisite skills, to practise in the Canadian northwest.

Helping international doctors who choose to move to Canada to get the accreditation they need is important, according to the Canadian Medical Association.

However, the association does not support actively recruiting medical professionals, like doctors and nurses, from countries that need them, said Canadian Medical Association president Ruth Collins-Nakai.

“We don’t believe that you should be planning your physician resources by stealing from other countries,” she said.

“We believe that Canada needs to be self-sufficient in physician numbers.”

Canada has been importing about 400 doctors per year from other countries that “desperately need them themselves,” she added.

“If anything, a ‘have’ country like Canada should be contributing to the rest of the world.

“It shouldn’t be stealing from it.”

With the current shortage of family doctors from Whitehorse to Halifax, Canada does not have physicians to spare.

The roots of the shortage date back to the early 1990s, when a report stated Canada may be facing an excess of doctors, said Collins-Nakai, an Edmonton-based cardiologist.

In the following years, the number of students admitted into medical schools was reduced, and cuts were made post-graduate programs for specialists.

“During the 1990s, there were cuts to both enrollment numbers (in medical school) and to post-graduate training positions,” said Collins-Nakai.

Now, more than 10 years later, Canadians are feeling the repercussions.

“We’ve got the baby boomers entering the age where they require more health-care services; we’ve got baby boomer doctors retiring, and decreased enrolment into medical school,” she said.

Across the country there is an average of about 2.1 doctors per 1,000 Canadians.

The doctor-to-population average in member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, a research group that involves 30 countries, mostly developed nations, is 2.9 per 1,000.

Bumping Canada up to 2.9 would mean an immediate influx of 20,000 doctors, said Collins-Nakai.

However, there are not enough students in medical schools to fill this gap.

While medical school enrollment reached an all-time low in 1998 with 1,581 students, it has been on the rise since then, according to statistics from the Association of Faculties of Medicine of Canada.

For the 2004 to 2005 school year, 2,193 hopefuls lined the desks in Canada’s medicine programs.

It’s still not enough.

For Canada to have a sustainable number of doctors, there should have been least 2,500 graduates from medical schools in 2005, according to Collins-Nakai.

In that year, there were only 1,881 graduates.

“We now think that we’ll probably need more like 3,000 per year if we’re to keep up with population growth,” she said in a recent phone interview.

And the problems don’t end there, either.

It’s not as simple as letting more medical students walk out robed, with a degree in hand.

“Right now the medical schools are all bulging at the seams because they’ve had increases over the past couple of years,” said Collins-Nakai.

“Not all medical schools can increase enrolment further without some increased funding.

“Both for buildings — for somewhere to put the students — but also for faculty.”

Despite the fact that health is a provincial and territorial responsibility, Canada needs a national strategy, she added.

“It has to be federal and provincial governments together,” she said.

“You can’t plan one province then steal doctors from another province.”

It’s essential that each province and territory has a plan that does not involve stealing from the others, Collins-Nakai added.

“Some provinces end up having better physician numbers,” she said.

“It’s easier to get physicians into cities — more difficult, for instance, to get physicians to cover Old Crow.

“If you are going to have people who are willing to work, for example, in the wilds of the Yukon, those people have to be given time off for updating their skills and for getting out. They tend to work very long hours.”

So, how do you ensure every Canadian has a family doctor.

“The whole thing requires ongoing, inter-provincial, longitudinal planning on behalf of government,” she said.

Despite repeated calls, Health and Social Services minister Brad Cathers could not be reached for an interview.