Shortage of Family Physicians in Canada Intensified During Pandemic

Heidi Splete

October 06, 2022

A higher percentage of family physicians quit during the early months of the pandemic than the average yearly percentage that did in the prior decade, according to data from Canada.

The researchers conducted two analyses of billing claims data for family physicians practicing in Ontario. They examined data for a period from 2010 to 2019 – before the onset of the pandemic – and from 2019 through 2020. The findings were published in Annals of Family Medicine.

Overall, the proportion of family physicians who stopped working rose from an average of 1.6% each year for the period between 2010 and 2019 to 3% in the period from 2019 to 2020. The pandemic data set included 12,247 physicians in Ontario. Of these, 385 (3.1%) reported no billings in the first 6 months of the pandemic.

Compared with family physicians billing for work during the pandemic, those reporting no billings were significantly more likely to be 75 years or older (13.0% vs. 3.4%), to have patient panels of less than 500 patients (40.0% vs. 25.8%), and to be eligible for fee-for-service reimbursement (37.7% vs. 24.9%; P less than .001 for all). The family physicians who reported no billing early in the pandemic also had fewer billing days in the previous year (mean of 73 days vs. 101 days, P less than .001).

In a regression analysis, the absolute increase in the percentage of family physicians who stopped working was 0.3% per year from 2010 to 2019, but rose to 1.2% between 2019 and 2020.

Challenges to family physicians in Ontario in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic included reduced revenue, inability to keep offices fully staffed, and problems obtaining enough personal protective equipment. Such challenges may have prompted some family physicians to stop working prematurely, but more research is needed in other settings, wrote study author Tara Kiran, MD, of the University of Toronto, and colleagues.

"There were a lot of stories and suggestions that more family physicians were choosing to retire due to COVID," Michael Green, MD, a coauthor of the paper, said in an interview. "Given the preexisting shortages we thought it would be important to see if this was true, and how big of an issue it was," he said.

Although the absolute number of primary care physicians who stopped working is small, the implications are large given the ongoing shortage of family physicians in Canada, the researchers wrote.

The characteristics of physicians stopping work, such as older age and smaller practice size, were consistent with that of physicians preparing for retirement, the researchers noted. In addition, 56% of the family physicians who stopped working during the pandemic practiced in a patient enrollment model, in which patients are enrolled and between 15% and 70% of payment is based on age and sex. In this study, approximately 80% of physicians worked in this model. The remaining 20% operated in independent, fee-for-service practices.

"Although we cannot directly attribute causation, we hypothesize that some family physicians accelerated their retirement plans because of the pandemic," the researchers noted. They proposed that possible reasons include health concerns, increased costs of infection prevention and control, reduced revenue from office visits, and burnout. The current study did not examine these issues.

Additional studies are needed to understand the impact on population health, the researchers concluded, but they estimated that the number of family physicians who stopped work during the pandemic would have provided care for approximately 170,000 patients.

The study findings reflect a genuine turnover by family physicians, vs. a departure from family practice to a fellowship and practice in another specialty, Green said. "We looked at physician billings to determine who stopped practicing, so we report only on those who stopped billing the Ontario Health Insurance Program altogether," he explained.

The ongoing pandemic accelerated the issue of an upcoming wave of physician retirements and added to an already large number of people without a family physician, Green noted.

"We know there will be significant shortages of family physicians if we don't modernize our ways of delivering primary care," said Green. More research is needed on how to support family doctors with teams and administrative supports to allow them to provide high quality care to more patients, he said. Better models to estimate health workforce needs in primary care are needed as well, he added.

In the United States, a physician shortage has been growing since before the pandemic, according to a report published in 2021 by the Association of American Medical Colleges. In this report, "The Complexities of Physician Supply and Demand: Projections from 2019 to 2034," the authors specifically projected a primary care physician shortage of 17,800 to 48,000 by 2034. This projection is in part based on an increase in the percentage of the U.S. population aged 65 years and older, which will increase the demand for care, according to the authors. The report also confirmed that many U.S. physicians are approaching retirement age and that more than two of five active physicians will be 65 years or older within the next 10 years.

However, the authors of this U.S. report acknowledged that the impact of the pandemic on existing primary care shortages remains unclear.

"There are still many unknowns about the direct short-term and long-term impacts of COVID-19 on the physician workforce, and it may be several years before those impacts are clearly understood," they said in the executive summary of their report.

Alison N. Huffstetler, MD, a coauthor of a recent report that tried to identify the active primary care workforce in Virginia, said, "We know from other research that there are not enough primary care doctors, right now, to do the work that needs to be done – some citations have noted it would take a primary care doc over 20 hours a day just to provide preventive care.

"As our population continues to age, live longer, and need more complex care management, we must ensure we have an accountable, accessible, and knowledgeable primary care network to care for our communities," she said.

Current State of Primary Care in Virginia

The study by Huffstetler, of Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, and colleagues was published in Annals of Family Medicine. It used a novel strategy involving the analysis of state all-payer claims data to determine how many physicians were practicing primary care in Virginia.

The researchers used the National Plan and Provider Enumeration System (NPPES) and the Virginia All-Payer Claims Database (VA-APCD) and identified all Virginia physicians and their specialties through the NPPES between 2015 and 2019. Active physicians were defined as those with at least one claim in the VA-APCD during the study period. They identified 20,976 active physicians in Virginia, 28.1% of whom were classified as primary care. Of these, 52% were family medicine physicians, 18.5% were internal medicine physicians, 16.8% were pediatricians, 11.8% were ob.gyns., and 0.5% were other specialists.

Clinician specialties were identified via specialty codes from the NPPES. Physicians were identified as primary care providers in two ways. The first way was by identifying those who had a National Uniform Claim Committee (NUCC) taxonomy of family medicine. The NUCC identifies a provider's specialty using several levels of classification based on board certification and subspecialty certification data. The second identifier was having been a physician who had billed for at least 10 wellness visit codes from Jan. 1, 2019, through Dec. 31, 2019.

Over the 5-year study period (2015-2019), the counts and percentages of primary care physicians in the workforce remained stable, and the overall number of physicians in the state increased by 3.5%, the researchers noted. A total of 60.45% of all physicians and 60.87% of primary care physicians remained active, and 11.66% of all physicians had a claim in only 1 of the 5 years.

How Distribution and Access Impact Patients

In an interview, Huffstetler said the study she and colleagues authored "offers a transparent and reproducible process for identifying primary care physicians in a state, where they practice, and what changes in staffing occur over time."

"In Virginia, this is particularly important, as we recently expanded Medicaid, making primary care more affordable for over 500,000 people," she said. "We also saw the importance of distribution and accessibility to primary care over the past 3 years of COVID. In order to adequately prepare for community needs in the coming years, we must know who is providing primary care, and where they are."

However, the model used in this study has its limitations, Huffstetler said, including the lack of a definitive definition of primary care using claims data.

"We used a data-informed wellness visit threshold, but it is likely that primary care is delivered in some locations without claims that are reflected by a wellness visit, and we hope to look at scope in the future to help refine these results," she said.

Canadian Study Shows Pandemic's Impact on Patient Care

"The pandemic's impact on primary care remains palpable, and Kiran's team has done an excellent analysis on the practice trends during the past several years," Huffstetler said.

"The Canadian analysis uses claims in a similar manner to our study; however, it appears that they already knew who the FPs were in Ontario," Huffstetler noted. "Their claims threshold of 50 for active practice was higher than ours, at only 1. Should those FPs have moved to a different specialty, the physicians would still have claims for the patients seen in other subspecialties. As such, I don't suspect that their analysis miscalculated those that transitioned, rather than stopped practice," she explained.

The Ontario study was supported by the Initial Credential Evaluation Service, which is funded by the Ontario Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Long-Term Care, as well as by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. Additional support came from the INSPIRE Primary Health Care Research Program, which is also funded by the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. The researchers had no financial conflicts to disclose.

The Virginia study was supported by the Department of Medical Assistance Services and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. The researchers had no financial conflicts to disclose.

The supply and demand report was conducted for the AAMC by IHS Markit, a global information company.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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