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How many doctors do we actually need?

Deciding how many doctors a region actually needs is a tricky business, says Arthur Sweetman, a health economist at McMaster University. For one thing, the rules of supply and demand don’t really apply in a universal health care system.

Sep 12, 2018

In many parts of Canada, there is a shortage of doctors. The New Brunswick Medical Society, for example, says the province has 39 vacancies for family physicians and 50 new positions are needed to meet demand. In British Columbia, family medicine is in “crisis mode” with shortages across the province, says Dr. Shelley Ross, cochair of Doctors of BC’s general practice service committee. “We used to talk about shortages in rural areas; now it’s across urban areas too,” she says. “We are short 30 doctors just in Burnaby.”

But deciding how many doctors a region actually needs is a tricky business, says Arthur Sweetman, a health economist at McMaster University. For one thing, the rules of supply and demand don’t really apply in a universal health care system. “You can forget supply and demand in the Canadian context,” he says. “If the price is zero, people will want a lot.” So the government constrains supply to control demand.

Calculating what that supply should be is not straightforward. “There is no single accepted method. Academics have many ways of calculating it, and some are used by governments, but political and money considerations come into it,” says Sweetman.

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