Braid: Top doctor urges UCP to 'stop the bleeding' in family medicine or face disaster

The head of the Alberta Medical Association has been pleading, begging and cajoling the provincial government for many months, pressing the urgency of help for family doctors.

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“Family medicine isn’t on the brink of collapse anymore . . . it’s crumbling around us as we speak,” says Dr. Paul Parks, head of the Alberta Medical Association.

Parks has been pleading, begging and cajoling the government for many months, pressing the urgency of help for family doctors.

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He fears the system might implode so disastrously that it couldn’t be rebuilt for many years.

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Now he has a survey of family and rural doctors themselves, done with the participation of respected pollster ThinkHQ.

It’s a chronicle of pressure, worry and downright misery.

Fifty-seven per cent of doctors say their practices are in poor financial shape. Only eight per cent report being in good shape.

Nearly 20 per cent think they could effectively go broke within six months.

Fifty-four per cent are looking to eliminate or reduce comprehensive care.

Among veteran physicians, 64 per cent are considering early retirement.

Parks talked to reporters on the very day the UCP started its in-person consultations on health care.

An emergency physician in Medicine Hat, he compares family practices to the patients he sees in the ER.

“The very first thing you do is stop the bleeding. I’m begging the premier and the (health) minister to let us put a tourniquet on those bleeding wounds.

“The patient is in critical condition and I’m very worried.”

He says almost any delay means more family and rural medicine practices closing, more doctors leaving and more trouble recruiting new ones.

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The federal aid announced in December is welcome, but doctors won’t see any of it until spring, he adds.

And the province hasn’t fully responded to the AMA request for a new pay model.

Family doctors are also small business owners who pay for rent, staff and many supplies with their income, which comes solely from seeing patients and billing for the visits. Inflation has sharply raised costs while fees stay the same.

If one doctor leaves a practice, Parks says, the others might be stuck with all the fixed costs, including onerous leases, and the practice becomes even shakier.

Dr. Paul Parks
Dr. Paul Parks, president of the Alberta Medical Association. Photo by SUPPLIED/AMA

The problem cited by AMA is the outmoded fee-for-service system.

They want more financial support for fixed costs and a panel system for payment, which compensates doctors based on the number and type of patients they serve, rather than individual visits.

Parks says other provinces, including Saskatchewan and B.C., are already bringing in serious reforms. They are becoming irresistible magnets for Alberta doctors.

The UCP is now deep in budget talks. There are many competing demands for cash, while Premier Danielle Smith talks about a new fear of deficits.

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Parks is not critical of either Smith or Health Minister Adriana LaGrange.

He says he’s spoken to both and they’re fully aware of the problems and potential solutions.

“But we now need them not only to show that they understand there’s a problem, we need them to act — not three months from now, not six months from now, but right now.”

“Our entire health-care system is at stake because if you don’t fix primary care, it’s impossible to address the issues in acute care or in continuing care or mental health and addictions care.”

“If you’re lucky enough to have a family doctor, odds are actually quite high that your practice and your family physician may have to make changes to their practice to stay viable.

“They may have to reduce the comprehensive cradle-to-grave type care that you have grown to rely upon. They may have to do that within the next year.

“For those that don’t have a family doctor, it’s abundantly clear that this isn’t the environment that’s going to recruit more physicians and more family specialists into our province.”

Parks is obviously making the case for funding, along with many other groups pressuring the government.

But he is the only one, as far as I can see, who goes to work an emergency ward shift right after holding a news conference.

Doctors aren’t making this up. It’s just that serious.

Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald

X: @DonBraid

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