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St. Albert doctor hopes province's primary care panels will address physician shortage

The three advisory panels will include a strategic advisory panel, an Indigenous panel, and an international expert panel.
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St. Albert and Sturgeon Primary Care Network's board president, Dr. Barbara Fischer, welcomes news the province will be analyzing primary care in the coming months. The province recently announced the creation of three advisory panels. SUPPLIED/Photo

St. Albert and Sturgeon Primary Care Network's board president, Dr. Barbara Fischer, said the most pressing issue for primary health care is the shortage of family doctors.

“This is only going to become more critical over the next decade as our population ages,” she said in an email to The Gazette.

On Sept. 23, Alberta Health Minister Jason Copping announced the creation of three advisory panels that will advise the government on ways to modernize primary health care in the province.

Primary health care is defined as to whom people go when they first need access to the health-care system. It includes family doctors, nurse practitioners, pharmacists, and public health nurses.

Fischer said it’s welcome news to see the province focusing on primary health care.

“Primary health care is foundational to supporting the ongoing health of Albertans. Meaningful improvements are needed, and the advisory panels are a good first step in pulling the right people together,” said Fischer.

The three advisory panels will include a strategic advisory panel that will look at issues in the overall primary care system in Alberta. Sylvan Lake physician Dr. Brad Bahler is co-chair, along with Dr. Janet Reynolds, a family physician at Crowfoot Village Family Practice and medical director at Calgary Foothills Primary Care Network.

“I am very happy to see that two well-respected, practicing family doctors are co-chairing the strategic advisory panel,” said Fischer.

The Indigenous panel will look at the issues specific to primary care for Indigenous people in Alberta. This panel is co-chaired by Trish Merrithew-Mercredi, who was an assistant deputy minister of the public health and compliance division at Alberta Health. 

The international expert panel will look at and share knowledge of other jurisdictions, and includes Edmonton-based physician Dr. Jennifer Njenga, CEO and founder of Canada Homecare Group, and Dr. Richard Lewanczuk, senior medical director for health system integration for Alberta Health Services. 

The province is calling the panels Modernizing Alberta’s Primary Health Care System (MAPS), and the panels will work towards identifying “primary health-care improvements in the short term and over the next five to 10 years.”

During the press conference, Copping said the province has had issues with family physician access long before COVID, but the pandemic has made access issues worse.

Copping said the issue is the province needs more family doctors and nurse practitioners and a better system for them to work in.

“We need that for two reasons; to add capacity and to get more Albertans connected to a regular primary care provider,” he said.

Fischer said family doctors are key to helping people access the right care at the right time.

“People without a family doctor are more likely to wait until they are more critically ill before seeking attention, and then to go to an emergency department. Afterwards, they are unlikely to get the coordinated follow-up care that a patient would normally have through their family physician,” she said.

Currently, said Fischer the St. Albert and Sturgeon Primary Care Network has around 70 physicians that represent around 18 medical homes in the area.

Copping said the province has the foundations in place for the primary care system the province needs “including shifting to team-based care, using more virtual care, more access to pharmacists, as primary health care providers.”

During the press conference on Friday, a reporter asked Copping whether creating a panel was a meaningful step, as family doctors have already been talking about the issues facing family medicine.

Copping said the province is investing money into the primary care system and the province is also working with medical schools to increase the number of spots for doctors.

“We also recognize that it's not just about getting more people in … we need to look at other solutions, and other ways to combat this and, quite frankly, learn from other jurisdictions,” he said.

A press release said an innovation forum will be held in the winter to discuss solutions to current barriers in the system.

A final report with recommendations for the primary health-care system is due in spring 2023.

Fischer said it is important that family physicians have a voice at the table, and she is hopeful the panels will facilitate that.

“We hope to have the opportunity to be involved in shaping the services and options available to those living within the St. Albert and Sturgeon areas,” she said.

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