Lethbridge residents now travelling to find family doctors as physician shortage worsens

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Many Lethbridge and area residents hoping to find a new family doctor are now being forced to travel to Calgary, or some of the smaller rural communities in southern Alberta.

The provincial government maintains there are lots of physicians in Alberta, but that’s not the case in Lethbridge, where many physicians have either retired or moved to take positions elsewhere.

Some patients are blaming what they see as the UCP government’s attack on health care professionals for the shortage.

Linda Richards lives south of Lethbridge, but considers the city to be her “business centre,” where she shops, purchases groceries, and was attended to by her family doctor.

“To have him leaving was a surprise,” said Richards. “What was startling was there were no replacements.”

Richards discovered the only physicians in Lethbridge taking new patients were doctors at the Prairie Treatment Opioid Dependency Clinic.

When she called the Chinook Primary Care Network seeking help, she was told her other options were to try the Fort Macleod Medical Clinic or the Blood Tribe Clinic in Stand Off.

“The idea of driving to see someone who is a distance away doesn’t seem like a very appealing choice,” said Richards. “But it’s the only choice right now."

“It’s just beyond me that we are in a situation where we can’t attract docs in a city like Lethbridge,” said Robert Luco, who has a short, three-minute drive to Lethbridge from his farm near the airport.

Robert Luco is concerned about the loss of his family doctor in Lethbridge.

Luco was notified in August that his family doctor was also leaving. In a letter to patients, the physician explained it was for both personal reasons and because of the political climate in Alberta.

“The last 18 months have been bitter for everyone. Our current Provincial Government has not made things easy for the medical profession in Alberta," the letter stated.

"I fear this is going to make recruiting new doctors to our clinic extremely difficult.”

Concerned about what was happening, both Luco and Richards contacted Cardston-Taber-Warner MLA Grant Hunter (UCP).

“He just said there are all kinds of doctors in Alberta,” said Richards, who added Hunter also promised to look into the situation and get back to her.

In an interview with CTV News Hunter acknowledged that his office had received “a handful” of phone calls on the issue, mostly from the western part of his riding, which borders the city.

“I heard just recently that in Lethbridge and some of the Southern Zone there are some health care professions that are understaffed and we need to rectify the situation,” said Hunter.

He added the health minister is aware of the issue and trying to work through it.

Hunter maintains province-wide there is no shortage of family physicians, and that Alberta has more doctors than it did prior to the pandemic.

“In terms of what’s happening in Lethbridge, there might be a micro-situation there that we have to address," he said.

Medical clinic managers in Lethbridge suggest physician numbers do not tell the whole story. They point out a number of family doctors who don’t work full-time.

Alberta Health Services has also taken over control of assessments of international physicians, which in essence, has resulted in a freeze on the recruitment of physicians from outside the country.

The fact that the province has not been able to reach a new master agreement with physicians hasn’t helped.

Richards said until recently she never imagined there would be a shortage of doctors in Canada.

“To come to a province that has been as wealthy and well prepared as Alberta has been in so many ways, it just feels we’ve fallen off of a cliff in being able to keep physicians.” 

Luco says the loss of his physician will also affect his son, a good friend, and two other people that he knows personally, “and all of us have health issues that need to be dealt with.”

He is concerned the growing shortage will result in more visits to the emergency room, which would be more costly and is not ideal during the pandemic.

“I don’t think this is an uncommon thing at this point, but it’s certainly unacceptable,” said Luco.