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Alberta must offer higher pay to keep scarce supply of oncologists, medical association says

The Alberta Medical Association says the provincial government needs to improve pay for oncologists to fix what it is calling a “dangerously overstrained and under-resourced” cancer care system in Alberta. 

The number of oncologists is not keeping up with the aging population and the surge of newcomers moving to Alberta, the AMA says. Meanwhile, cancer cases are increasing.

“We feel that we’re kind of at this crisis point where it’s really critical people understand what we’re facing,” said Dr. Paul Parks, president of the AMA, and an emergency room physician in Medicine Hat. 

Only 25 new oncologists enter the Canadian workforce each year so they are in high demand across Canada and the rest of the world. He says Alberta will need about 50 extra oncologists over the next three years to keep up. 

“It’s such a finite resource, these skills and human beings with this skill set, that right now they can choose where they want to work and and of course they’re going to go where it’s competitive and most enticing to them to work,” Parks said. 

“We need the minister and the premier and the whole government to say yes, this is a priority, we have to invest in it now, absolutely need to invest in it now.”

Delays getting treatment

Oncologists have been trying to reach an agreement with Alberta Health Services over the last five months. Parks said they are concerned that compensation isn’t high enough to compete with provinces like Ontario and B.C. which are aggressively recruiting. 

The number of oncologists is not keeping up with Alberta’s population growth. In 2013, 102 oncologists practised in Alberta. In 2022, the number increased by 20 per cent to 122. The number of new cancer cases increased by 40 per cent over those nine years. 

The AMA says patients are waiting eight to 13 weeks for an initial assessment by an oncologist. The five most frequently performed cancer surgeries are bladder, colorectal, breast, lung and prostrate procedures. Only 60 per cent are performed within recommended timelines. 

Alberta-trained oncologists are leaving the province for greener pastures. Over the past four years, only one of eight radiation oncologists stayed in Alberta. Of the 17 medical oncologists trained here, just two stuck around.

The AMA fears the physician shortage which has left 650,000 to 800,000 Albertans without a family doctor means patients won’t be diagnosed until their cancers have progressed so far that their chance of survival has diminished. 

The province’s desire to break Alberta Health Services into four separate organizations, as outlined in Bill 22, is creating additional uncertainty and confusion for physicians, the AMA says.

Parks said once cancer patients get into Alberta’s health-care system they receive excellent care. He said the province needs to the workforce to ensure they are hitting benchmarks for getting people the treatment they need before their cancer gets worse.

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