Why can't Canadians find a family doctor?

A man on a phone with question marks in the background

Reports of unmet needs for primary care remain common across Canada, despite historically high ratios of primary care providers to the population. Data access has been approved for a research study which will provide new information about changes within the physician workforce, and will inform what options and supports might alter practice choices, and by extension, physician supply.

Dr. Ruth Lavergne, Assistant Professor at Simon Fraser University, is leading a team of researchers and clinicians whose ultimate goal is to strengthen primary care. The study will use qualitative interviews, survey data, and linked administrative health data in British Columbia, Ontario, and Nova Scotia, (provinces with variable policy environments for primary care).

“There is widespread speculation that practice patterns among primary care physicians are different now compared with earlier cohorts, but little evidence to support or refute this idea,” says Dr. Lavergne. “Accurate information about how primary care practice is changing is needed for health workforce and primary care planning.”

Speculative explanations for a patient’s inability to find a “regular” family physician include: the growth in walk-in style practices; early-career physicians taking a series of locums rather than taking over a practice or starting their own; and physicians choosing to specialize within family medicine, focusing their practices on clinical areas (such as sports medicine, addictions, palliative care, or obstetrics). Other factors that may shape practice intentions and patterns include: physician demographics and personal characteristics; academic culture and training; and policy environment and practice models.

It is hoped that the research, which is funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, will also help identify areas where new models of care or expanded roles for non-physician primary care providers may be needed. “All jurisdictions in Canada face similar challenges of ensuring access to primary care, coupled with changing physician demographics and aging patient populations, and we are excited to be able conduct this research in multiple provinces. We hope findings will have widespread relevance,” concludes Dr. Lavergne.

For the project PopData will link data sets from the BC Ministry of Health, BC vital Statistics Agency and WorkSafeBC with data from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of BC.