Urgent Need for More Oncologists in Alberta

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A Life Cut Short: Alberta Man’s Tragic Wait for Cancer Treatment

Mark Agnew remembers his father, Don, as a self-made man who built his construction company from the ground up. But above all, Don valued his relationships with people. "He always wanted to help others," Mark recalls. "If there was a problem, he was the first one to find a solution, whether for a client, a friend, or family."

Don Agnew, 69, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in February 2023. He received his biopsy results but never had a follow-up appointment with an oncologist. The Cross Cancer Institute in Calgary eventually contacted the Agnew family in April 2023 to set up an appointment. Unfortunately, Don didn’t make it. He passed away on May 6.

"We got a call from the Cross Cancer Centre about 10 days before my father died in hospice. It was too late," Mark said.

Alberta’s Oncologist Shortage Crisis

Experts from the Alberta Medical Association highlight a growing problem: the number of oncologists in Alberta isn’t keeping up with the province’s aging population and increasing number of cancer cases. Patients often wait months to see an oncologist, despite the target wait time being four weeks.

Dr. Brock Debenham, a radiation oncologist in Edmonton, sees this issue firsthand. "Patients often wonder if their treatment would have been different if they had been seen sooner," he said. "Sometimes, scans from months ago show they were potentially curable, but by the time they see an oncologist, they’re not."

A Call for Long-Term Investment

Debenham believes Alberta needs a long-term investment in cancer care. He points to British Columbia as a success story, noting they’ve hired over 60 oncologists in the last two years. "We need a similar program in Alberta where we say it’s unacceptable for a cancer patient to wait this long to see an oncologist," he said.

A 2023 report on the supply and demand for radiation oncologists in Canada supports this, predicting that demand will outpace staffing levels. The study recommends increasing residency positions, especially outside Ontario.

Efforts to Recruit and Retain Doctors

Alberta’s Ministry of Health has recruited 17.2 full-time equivalent positions for 2024-25. However, Debenham points out that more than half of these new hires are replacing retirees or those who left for other provinces. One major issue is wages, which affect the province’s ability to retain doctors, according to the Alberta Medical Association.

Alberta Health is working with the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary to increase medical training seats and residency positions, aiming to produce more than 100 additional Alberta-trained physicians annually. The ministry also stated that Cancer Care Alberta hired 115 new and replacement clinical support staff in 2023.

The Human Impact

Despite the tragic loss of his father, Mark Agnew feels his family was fortunate. They had a friend in the medical community who could interpret Don’s biopsy results. "He immediately got on the phone with us, sat down with my parents, and broke the bad news," Mark said.

Although seeing an oncologist might not have extended Don Agnew’s time with his grandchildren, Mark worries about other cancer patients left waiting for care. "If I didn’t have that network of friends to interpret the results, I don’t know what we would have done," he said.

The Broader Picture

The situation in Alberta reflects a broader issue in Canada’s healthcare system: a growing demand for specialized care without a corresponding increase in medical professionals. This imbalance can lead to devastating consequences, as seen in Don Agnew’s case.

Efforts to recruit and retain more oncologists are critical. The experiences of families like the Agnews underscore the need for timely access to cancer care. Investments in medical training and competitive wages for doctors are essential steps toward addressing this issue.

A Call to Action

The tragic story of Don Agnew is a stark reminder of the importance of prompt medical attention and the dire need for more oncologists in Alberta. As the province grapples with an aging population and increasing cancer cases, it’s clear that more must be done to ensure patients receive timely and effective treatment.

So, what’s your take on this? Do you think Alberta is doing enough to address the shortage of oncologists? Share your thoughts and join the conversation below in the comments.