Acting on new insights about family doctor practice will have positive impact on health workforce challenges

Creation of Health Workforce Canada, new data, employer toolkits, policy changes among key actions underway

By Health Workforce Canada

A report released this week by the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) builds on our understanding about factors that may be contributing to the availability of primary care in Canada, and is one of several initiatives underway to address complex, system-level challenges in this area of our health care system.

“We hear anecdotally about family physicians working outside of primary care, but we now have data to measure this,” said Deb Gordon, interim CEO of Health Workforce Canada, the new independent organization created to support partners in addressing health workforce challenges and allow for critical long-term planning.

“This kind of data is critical for tracking trends over time so we can see what system challenges and opportunities will be, now and in the future,” Gordon said.

The CIHI data shows that almost 30 per cent of family physicians in Canada are working outside of primary care. Data has shown that while about 88 per cent of Canadians 12 and older (not including Quebec) said they a regular health care provider in national surveys between 2019 and 2021, about 12 per cent did not.

The latest report also noted:

• The five-year growth rate in the number of family physicians has slowed, from 12.9 per cent between 2012 and 2016 to 7.7 per cent between 2017 and 2021, while the number of unfilled family medicine residency positions has increased

• Health care job vacancies across all professions more than doubled to 120,140 in 2022-2023, compared with 49,675 in 2018-19, before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This kind of information allows policymakers to understand how to address complex primary care issues at the system level to ensure the health care system is meeting the needs of all people in Canada. We can see partners working together through data, research, innovation and policymaking to ensure the health care system in Canada is able to meet the needs of all people in Canada,” Gordon said.

Last October, Canada’s federal, provincial and territorial Ministers of Health agreed at a meeting in Charlottetown, P.E.I, to work collaboratively on the shared priorities of expanding access to family health services; supporting health workers and reducing backlogs; increasing support for mental health and addictions services; and modernizing Canada’s health care systems.

They committed to strategies to address ongoing priorities including strengthening health workforce data and planning through a new Centre of Excellence, which in November 2023 became Health Workforce Canada.

They agreed to help health workforce retention through the creation of a Nursing Retention Toolkit designed to provide concrete tools and guides to employers to create work environments where nurses feel supported and want to stay in their jobs. The toolkit was released March 1, and you can find it on the new resources page of Health Workforce Canada’s website.

The ministers also agreed to advance labour mobility for physicians, nurses and allied health professional so they can practice across jurisdictions without significant delays and to make sure internationally educated health professionals can get to work more quickly in Canada.

All jurisdictions agreed to improving understanding about the supply and demand of health workers needed now and in future. Health Workforce Canada is actively participating in the study. The intent is to release early results in October to enhance health workforce planning.

“Health Workforce Canada thanks all the people working in this space. Primary care depends on family doctors, and is also capably supported by nurse practitioners, nurses, physiotherapists, pharmacists, medical office assistants and many more dedicated health care workers,” said Gordon.

“Good primary care takes a team, including the patient and their family, and we’re grateful for the contributions of everyone involved in caring for the people of Canada across our system.”