More than a third of Canadians who don’t have a family doctor say they have been searching for one for more than a year, all while their health is declining compared to those with easy family doctor access, new research shows.
In the second report to come from an Angus Reid series focusing on Canada’s health-care access crisis, researchers laid out how many Canadians simply can’t find a family doctor.
And it’s not that they aren’t looking — the problem is that Canada’s staffing shortage in the health-care system stretches far beyond its hospitals.
In some areas of Canada, there may be a single family doctor for an entire town. One doctor in Wheatley, Ont., the report stated, is responsible for 1,400 patients, all of whom will be stranded when he retires later this year with no replacement yet lined up.
A third of Canadians can’t see their doctor within a week, the survey found, while another 17 per cent have been unable to find a doctor at all despite their efforts, meaning that half of Canadians are struggling to see a family doctor.
While four out of five Canadians do have a family doctor, that leaves more than six million people in Canada without one, the report found.
The younger you are, the more likely you are to be without a family doctor in Canada, according to the report, with 28 percent of men and 21 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 34 reporting that they want a doctor and can’t find one.
Among Canadians who don’t have a doctor, 35 per cent say they have been searching for more than a year.
Around 29 per cent of those wanting a doctor say they have given up looking.
It’s not a new issue — Statistics Canada reported in 2019 that around 4.6 million Canadians lacked a primary care provider — but with the wider health-care system buckling under the pressure of the pandemic and mass health-care worker burnout, it’s one that experts say we need to tackle now.
The report uses data from the Angus Reid Institute, a non-profit research aggregate which polls representative samples of its members to create survey data.
For this series on health care, surveys were conducted of 2,279 Canadians and 1,209 Americans in August, focusing on health-care issues.
A previous report published Wednesday focused on Canadian access to health care as a whole, as well as our confidence in the health-care system dipping below American confidence in their system.
FAMILY DOCTORS ACCESS GROWING SCARCE IN CANADA
Being unable to locate a family doctor is a huge issue, but the struggle to access care can continue even after Canadians have located a primary care physician.
Among those who have a family doctor, just 18 per cent said they were always able to secure an appointment in a day or two.
Which province you live in also makes a marked difference — BC and Atlantic Canada have the highest number of adults who report being unable to find a doctor or who have issues accessing the doctor they do have.
Nearly a quarter of those surveyed who lived in BC and in Quebec said they had no doctor but wanted one. In Atlantic Canada, more people reported having a doctor, but it had the highest percentage of Canadians reporting difficulty seeing the doctor they had, at 41 per cent.
In terms of age, younger Canadians are more likely to not have a primary care physician, but older Canadians are more likely to have been searching for a doctor for a longer time. Around 43 per cent of those older than 35 years reported they had been looking for more than a year.
NO FAMILY DOCTOR CORRELATED WITH WORSE HEALTH
The difference that having a family doctor makes for your overall health was demonstrated when participants were asked to report on whether their health had improved or worsened in the last six months.
Across the entire sample, more than half said that their health had stayed the same, while 25 per cent responded that their health had improved and 20 per cent said it had worsened.
But when this question was looked at through the lens of who had good access to a family doctor and who didn’t, a new picture emerged.
While the percentage of respondents who reported that their health stayed the same in the last six months was fairly consistent across all four categories, 24 per cent of those with no doctor reported that their health had worsened, with 18 per cent reporting it had improved.
On the other end of the scale, an improvement in health was reported by 37 per cent of those who had a doctor they had swift access to, with just eight per cent of that group stating their health had worsened in the last six months.
Those who have no doctor also overwhelmingly reported difficulty in accessing tests and appointments, with 79 per cent reporting it was difficult to impossible to get an appointment with a specialist.
Canada’s staffing issue has been a problem long before the pandemic, but over the last two years, experts have warned that a breaking point is coming.
The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) warned in a statement in May that the percentage of medical students choosing to enter family medicine fell by seven per cent between 2015 and 2021. In 2021, although 2,400 family doctor positions were being advertised on government recruiting sites in December, only 1,400 new physicians had graduated that year to start family doctor practices.
“Family physicians face immense pressure,” the CMA statement noted. “Whether it is administrative tasks such as updating electronic medical records, completing medical forms, coordinating care across multiple agencies and providers, or managing increasingly complex care plans for an aging population, the expectations of family physicians are at all-time high.”
It called on provincial and federal governments to partner with family doctors to revolutionize how care is handled in order to improve efficiency, adding that a national license model should be implemented so that family doctors can move between provinces and establish practices in their new homes more quickly .
In order to compare family doctor access, the Angus Reid study also asked Americans about their experiences.
Similar numbers of Americans and Canadians reported having a family doctor, as physician shortages are also being faced in the US
Americans were also four times more likely than Canadians to not be looking for a doctor because they reported they didn’t want or need one.
But the Americans who reported having a doctor had a different assessment of their access than Canadians.
More Americans reported being able to secure an appointment in a day or two compared to Canadians.
Angus Reid will be releasing a third report this week to cap off the three-part health-care series.