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Alberta cancer patients left waiting for care over lack of oncologists

Albertans diagnosed with cancer are waiting three to four times longer than recommended standards to see a cancer specialist, according to the Alberta Medical Association.

Dr. Paul Parks, president of the Alberta Medical Association and emergency room doctor in Medicine Hat, Alta., said many first discover they have cancer while visiting emergency rooms.

“We’ve never seen the number of advanced cancers that we are diagnosing where the first diagnosis is in the emergency department,” he said.

“This is not really the best place to be giving that kind of diagnosis.”

Parks said the news is often distressing for patients, who are then told by physicians that they may have to wait months before seeing a specialist.

It can take up to eight weeks to see a medical oncologist and up to 13 weeks to see a radiation oncologist.

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Alberta’s target is for patients to see an oncologist within four weeks of the diagnosis. Compared with other provinces, Alberta is lagging behind in terms of wait times, he said.

Parks is now calling on the provincial government to recruit more oncologists for Alberta.

“The impact is real and we’re seeing it more and more and that’s why we are raising this alarm now,” Parks said.

According to Dr. Shaun Loewen, an oncologist who works at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in Calgary, it can take more than 13 weeks for 90 percent of Alberta cancer patients to receive a consult with a radiation oncologist.

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In Ontario, he said 83 per cent of cancer patients referred to a radiation oncologist are seen within two to three weeks.

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As a result of waiting, patients often face worse outcomes, he said.

“In some cases, the patient may not be curable at that point and we will be talking about extending life and quality of life at that point and to ease suffering,” Loewen said.

He noted roughly half of radiation oncology graduates come from Ontario.

The ones who get trained in Alberta end up leaving, he said.

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“It’s devastating. We have these conversations all the time with patients. We are limited by the amount of resources.”

Speaking on 630 CHED’s Your Province, Your Premier on Saturday, Premier Danielle Smith said the province needs to do more regarding recruiting.

“I believe we have recruited 17 new oncologists since the beginning of this year, so we are heading in the right direction,” she said.

In a statement to Global News, Alberta Health Minister Adriana LaGrange confirmed that 17 full-time Cancer Care Alberta physicians have been recruited, with start dates in the 2024-25 fiscal year. She said cancer programs across Canada are struggling to address increased workload demands.

They are also competing to recruit oncology specialists in what they’re calling a highly competitive environment, she said.

“We remain focused on addressing challenges in attracting, training and retaining health professionals in areas of need,” LaGrange said in the statement.

LaGrange said the Alberta government is working with the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary to increase the number of undergraduate medical training seats and residency positions.

An expansion could allow more than 100 additional Alberta-trained physicians to practice annually, she said.

“We continue to work diligently with (Alberta Health Services) to recruit to oncology positions in various locations across Alberta,” LaGrange said.

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“AHS actively recruits using multiple strategies, including international recruitment campaigns in the US and UK, and working with several post-secondary institutions to provide practicum supports.”

In a statement to Global News, officials from AHS said staff are working to address a steadily increasing demand for cancer care.

The organization said some options include extending clinical hours to reduce wait times and “aggressively recruit” frontline staff, including oncologists.

Loewen said cancer patient survival has increased, with oncology treatments becoming more successful.

Still, he said the system is under increasing pressure as more people move to Alberta.

“We’ve reached our capacity and it’s starting to have an effect on our workforce too,” Loewen said.

“We have seen wellness and mental health among our colleagues suffer, and some folks have taken medical leave because of this.”

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