Boosting number of doctors may still not meet demand
While there's no shortage of people trying to become doctors, it's unclear if there's been any improvement in the numbers and whether the supply can keep up with the demand.
Medical student Mohamed Hussain says "There's a lot of competent applicants in Ontario who apply to medical school, who don't get in."
About 4,000 undergraduate students apply to the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine at McMaster University annually, but at the new satellite campus in Kitchener, there are only 28 spots available.
And those strong application numbers are despite the fact that even if students get grants and scholarships they will spend thousands of dollars over several years for their medical education.
Hussain says the average debt for a medical student is around $125,000, and then there's all the time they also have to invest.
"I did three years of an undergraduate at Western and was lucky enough to get in early. Now three years at McMaster , so now it's six years. And now in addition, if I decide to do a five-year residency, that will be five more years of training."
And not all medical students will choose to become family doctors.
Cathy Morris of the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine says "Fifty per cent of the graduates chose family medicine, 50 per cent chose specialties."
The Ontario Medical Association says that's better than the provincial average. And the numbers have improved over the years, going from 27 per cent choosing family medicine in 2003 to 41 per cent in 2009.
In 2009, over 3,600 licences were issued, the highest annual total ever. However, internationally-trained doctors continue to face challenges trying to get licenced in Canada.
Dr. Sam Fikry is a family physician in Kitchener, Ont., he says "For immigrants, it's a long, long way. A lot of exams, quite expensive, for years and years."
Despite the difficulties, the number of licences issued to international medical graduates has gone up 119 per cent over the last ten years.
The Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care says it's seeing an overall increase in the number of doctors working in southwestern Ontario.
Minister of Health and Long-Term Care Deb Matthews says "There are some areas where we've got work to do, but I think we've achieved extraordinary success."
But some say it's not enough when you consider the rising population and the number of aging and retiring doctors, who are set to leave thousands of patients behind.
Fikry says "I know several physicians who are retired already, who are about to retire, and each one has an average of 3,000."
The average age of a family physician in Ontario is 51, and nearly half of doctors between 55 and 64 still work more than 41 hours per week.
Not all new doctors want to work that many hours or take on as many patients, and that poses a new challenge for those trying to recruit them to the area.
Dr. Alexander Pessoa of the Doctor Recruitment Task Force -- Cambridge says "The math right now, for us, would be that we need two new physicians to take the place of each retiring physician."
They also tend to prefer to work in group settings, like community health centres.
Family physician Dr. Craig Albrecht says "To work at a place like this, you can just walk in and start practicing, you don't have to build all the infrastructure to allow you to continue to do that."
So the goal is to allow current doctors to continue practice, and perhaps make it simpler for aspiring doctors to get started.
Hussain says "Have those practices already set up for you, have a clinic for you, have a secretary for you. And that way we'll have to spend less and we can concentrate on repaying our loans."
Coming up in part three: What is being doing to bring more doctors to the area, and how those without a family doctor can go about finding one.