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Sponsorship program could bring more physicians to Canmore, Bow Valley

“That’s a deficit we’re trying to serve. There are physicians who are on the brink of retirement from an age perspective, so there’s a need to be proactive from a recruiting perspective since even a sponsorship application takes months to be approved and at least 12 months to have them arrive and work independently.”
Canmore Civic Centre in winter 4
The Canmore Civic Centre. RMO FILE PHOTO

CANMORE – The ongoing physician shortage in Canmore will aim to get some potential relief from Alberta Health Services sponsorship program to recruit foreign-trained doctors.

A Jan. 26 letter from the Town of Canmore asked AHS for support in applying and covering costs for the program that could possibly see more doctors come to the region.

Dr. Brendan Flowers, a Canmore physician and owner of Mountain Maternity and Family Medicine, said the program would not fill all of the community’s demands but alleviate the ongoing lack of primary care for many residents.

He said with 10 physicians in the last three years who have left the area, closing their practice, retiring or having passed away, there are between 4,000-5,000 residents without a local doctor.

“That’s a deficit we’re trying to serve,” he said. “There are physicians who are on the brink of retirement from an age perspective, so there’s a need to be proactive from a recruiting perspective since even a sponsorship application takes months to be approved and at least 12 months to have them arrive and work independently.”

The program has different stages such as a written exam, English competency exam, a supervised portion of training and if a doctor is from a non-Commonwealth of Nations country, at least three months of supervised training is needed before they can work independently.

Flowers said he reached out to Bear Street Family Physicians in Banff who had applied for the program last year. Both it and Alpine Medical Clinic have been approved for the sponsorship, while Mountain Maternity has also been accepted and Ridgeview Medical Centre is in the process of its application.

“This is an excellent opportunity for the Bow Valley. … To be able to hire three or four physicians that would be working full-time would be a huge advantage to the Bow Valley. That would relieve some of the current stress we’re having with the physician shortage,” he said.

Flowers said a barrier for a clinic are fees associated with the sponsorship position. He said they can be “substantial” and a “financial barrier”, with clinics being small businesses that have overhead costs such as staff, utilities and rent.

“Those fees are being paid by the clinic. Other provinces manage it differently, but in Alberta if a clinic accepts a sponsorship position they’re asked to foot those fees,” he said. “Fortunately, AHS has been supportive in working together to see if there are opportunities to alleviate that financial burden to the clinics.

“We’re trying to make a sustainable business, so we can offer medical care to the community.”

The letter from the Town asked AHS’ Calgary Zone to help cover the fees, which has taken place in other zones in the province.

“Our ask is simply that if these costs can be covered in one zone, that the same opportunity be made available to our community,” according to the Jan. 26 letter from Mayor Sean Krausert. “The expectation of our clinics to cover the cost of the sponsorship is not feasible as they are already under significant financial strain due to the high cost of living in Canmore.”

The letter added the program needs to serve unmet needs in an underserviced community.

“Given that no family physicians are taking new patients, and have not in the past 12 months, and because we are currently in need of approximately four full-time physicians in our community, we respectfully request a similar type of support that other zones are being provided in order to sponsor one or more foreign-trained physicians in Canmore.”

A spokesperson for AHS said they would continue to work with Canmore and the Bow Valley to help the region’s physician needs. It was noted AHS is the only Alberta organization the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta will accept to sponsor doctors.

“AHS is aware of the current staffing challenges in Canmore and is supportive of the recruitment of additional physicians to the Town and the Bow Valley corridor. This includes physicians with training outside of Canada,” wrote Kristi Bland, a senior advisor with issues management for AHS in an email.

The shortage of doctors has been growing in recent years but has specifically hit hard the past year.

Bow Valley Primary Care Network identified housing as a main issue last year, with the low supply and high cost impacting the number of physicians able to move or stay in the valley. The BVPCN noted at the time no doctors were taking new patients, leading to families not having available medical care from a family doctor.

Canmore General Hospital’s operating room faced two weekend closures in February due to staff shortages. It led to obstetrical services being partially shuttered, leading to some expecting parents having to drive to Calgary's Foothills Medical Centre to deliver newborn babies.

“Communities across Alberta are struggling to recruit family physicians. Over the past year or more, several of our local doctors have closed their practices leaving thousands of our residents without a family physician,” states the letter from Krausert. “With our current doctors unable to take on new patients, we have an immense unmet need necessitating bringing new physicians to our community. Our local family physicians and hospital are keenly interested in recruiting foreign-trained physicians.”

Other hospitals across the province have also faced similar issues, but it has particularly hit smaller and rural municipalities the hardest.

Provincial policy factors have also played a role with the UCPs ending its master agreement with doctors in early 2021. The Alberta Medical Association launched a $255 million lawsuit, accusing the province of violating the charter. It wasn’t until last fall a new agreement was agreed to for physician compensation.

The Alberta NDP announced Feb. 15 its plan to help the province’s doctor shortage, which would aim to allow people see their family doctor within a day or two. The plan would have $150 million a year aid in hiring 1,500 non-physician employees and opening 10 new family health clinics in the province.

Premier Danielle Smith has also said healthcare is among her top two priorities since assuming the top public official role in Alberta.

Canadian premiers also accepted the federal government’s latest healthcare funding proposal on Feb. 13. The funding will have $46.2 billion in new money injected into the provinces and territories over the next decade, while the premiers had been asking for an annual $28 billion increase.

Flowers said Mountain Maternity has been able to hire a pair of part-time physicians who work twice a week and is hopeful to have two more part-time physicians join before the end of the year.

He said people can go to their website rather than phone for potential availability. While the physician shortage is still in place, Flowers said he is optimistic for the coming year of improving physician access for residents.

“I’m hopeful 2023 will be a turnaround year for the valley for primary care. … I’m optimistic there will be a turnaround,” he said.

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