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Alberta Medical Association sounds alarm over lack of available oncologists

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The Alberta Medical Association (AMA) is expressing deep concerns to the provincial government over a lack of oncologists needed to provide cancer care to keep up with population growth.

AMA president Dr. Paul Parks says cancer care provided in the province is amongst the best in the world, but not being able to access it has many patients deeply worried about their ability to overcome the deadly disease.

He notes that Alberta still has the same number of oncologists as it did 10 years ago and that about 50 are needed over the next three years to meet demands as approximately 200,000 people move to the province annually.

“So that's really high when you consider The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons only graduate 25 specialists a year and that’s across Canada. It shows that we're way behind,” Parks said.

“Up to 200,000 people is really like adding a Red Deer or Medicine Hat each year and not having the hospitals and the doctors to care for them, right? We need to have the infrastructure built, no question we need the specialized machinery and technology, but more than anything we need human beings given the actual care.”

According to the AMA, another issue comes in the fact that many doctors who train or receive their medical education in Alberta are leaving once they graduate.

The organization says just one in nine doctors stayed in Alberta last year and only three out of 17 doctors stayed in the province over the last couple of years.

“They're leaving for other provinces which is direct evidence that we're not competitive because usually the easiest thing is to stay in the community you trained, but it's because the other environments are much more competitive and attractive,” said Parks.

“We need these oncologists because a patient who might have been a candidate for an exciting new treatment that could cure their disease might not be eligible. Instead, they face longer treatments, poorer outcomes – or even worse – may only be palliative.”

Cancer patients waiting months

Diane McCallum was diagnosed with Stage 3A Breast Cancer on Sept. 21, 2023, and received a double mastectomy just six weeks later.

The 81-year-old wasn’t referred to an oncologist however for another two more months on Jan. 9. Following that, she started a hormonal medication and then had to wait another two more months to get referred to begin seeing a radiation oncologist by mid March.

From the date of her surgery it took four and a half months to begin receiving care, a time period she calls “totally disgraceful” and jeopardizing her chances of survival.

“I've had excellent treatment, but you know, they can't do any more than what they're doing. They just need more specialists and I wonder how they are going to get more specialists in Alberta,” McCallum said.

“I don't know what it's going to take but you know, if we’re searching for these poor doctors because they're working 24/7. I had a phone call one day on Sunday from the oncologist. I mean, you know they're working overtime, they're doing the best they can and I know I'm one of many they have to treat.”

McCallum wrote a letter to Alberta Health Services and the office of Health Minister Adriana LaGrange expressing her concerns.

She worries that care not received in a timely manner will cause detriment to her life and the lives of many others in need.

“My cancer spread under my arm and into the blood vessels in my lymph nodes, so once it got in my blood, I was concerned it's going to spread so I felt desperate to get in there and get the radiation.”

It's really frustrating and I know I'm one of many. We just need more specialists.”

B.C. and Ontario actively recruiting

According to the AMA, Alberta is far behind on recruiting efforts for oncologists, unlike other provinces like British Columbia and Ontario.

“Alberta alone could use two to three times as many,” said Parks.

“Assuming more spaces become available and we can begin to recruit, we need to address the fact that Alberta is simply not currently competitive with other provinces in retaining or attracting oncologists.”

That being said, some cancer patients in B.C. have expressed concern over noticing a rise in demand.

Tim Hoskin was diagnosed with Stage 4 colorectal cancer and underwent multiple surgeries and years of chemotherapy since 2018.

The 51-year-old from Squamish, B.C. was even placed on palliative care at one point until he was accepted into a trial program last November in Ontario to undergo a liver transplant.

Tim Hoskin, in the hospital bed, received a liver transplant from his friend Jeff Cooke. He says not everyone is as lucky as he is.

His life was saved by his good friend Jeff Cooke who donated his liver and to date he has no evidence of cancer.

Hoskin is grateful for the care he received when he needed it, but he worries about others who might not be so lucky.

“My professionals were up to the task and they cared for me with such empathy but yeah, even myself getting into chemo treatments, the fears were awful and there was always a risk of being bumped or not getting into testing,” Hoskin said.

“Fortunately, through advocacy from my doctors and such, we were able to get those done in a reasonable time so that I didn't run out of time and I got to be alive. But I know far too often in Western Canada, we're hearing these stories of folks not getting timely treatment and yeah as an advocate, it's extremely frustrating.”

'More to do'

Health Minister Adriana LaGrange, who told CTV News that she is a cancer survivor herself, says she is committed to providing quality and accessible care, including cancer prevention and screeing, to Albertans.

"However, there is more to do. Cancer programs across Canada are all struggling to address increased workload demands and competing to recruit oncology specialists in a highly competitive environment. We remain focused on addressing challenges in attracting, training and retaining health professionals in areas of need," she said.

"We’re also working closely with the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary to increase the number of undergraduate medical training seats and residency positions. This will enable more than 100 additional Alberta-trained physicians to practice annually."

LaGrange says the government is also working to recruit oncologists for centres throughout Alberta and said about 17 full-time cancer care physicians have been hired this year.

AHS, in the meantime, says access to care is a high priority.

"We are doing everything we can to recruit for positions throughout cancer care, including medical oncology, medical physics and radiation therapy. Recruiting and retaining frontline healthcare staff is a challenge nationally, and not unique to Alberta," a spokesperson wrote in an email to CTV News.

 

"Demand for cancer care has steadily increased year after year and we are working to address this, including exploring options such as extending clinical hours to reduce wait times wherever possible."

AHS says the new Arthur J.E. Child Comprehensive Cancer Centre is also expected to attract international experts in the field.

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