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Canadian Doctors Walk off Jobs

June 11, 1998

TORONTO (AP) _ Across Canada, doctors are increasingly resorting to work stoppages while warning that a medical brain drain to the United States will increase unless their demands for better pay are met.

Thousands of Quebec doctors walked off their jobs Thursday for the second time in two weeks, while British Columbia’s doctors plan four one-day stoppages over the next six weeks. In Alberta, rural doctors have repeatedly closed clinics in a bid for more money, and obstetricians are refusing to see new patients.

``Pressure tactics are the only method we have left,″ said Dr. Renald Dutil, president of the Quebec federation of general practitioners.

The cost of Canada’s public health care system is shared by the federal and provincial governments, which regulate prices of medical services and salaries of doctors.

The president of the Canadian Medical Association told a parliamentary committee this week that federal policies are driving many doctors to the United States, where average net income for physicians is two or three times higher.

Dr. Victor Dirnfeld said Canada suffered a net loss of 513 doctors in 1996, the last year for which final figures are available.

``The departure of each of these physicians represents the loss of a major investment in highly educated, skilled practitioners,″ he said. ``We are losing not only our best and brightest, but often are most committed physicians.″

Dirnfeld said doctors have been demoralized by cutbacks in federal health-care funding that have curtailed medical research and prompted most provinces to close hospitals.

British Columbia’s medical association says patients are dying because funding curbs have lengthened the wait for surgery. For example, the association says the wait for coronary bypass surgery is now 30 weeks, double what provincial officials claim.

``We are falling down a slippery slope to a second-class health care system,″ said association president Granger Avery.

The national medical association, in a recent study, predicted a shortage of doctors in coming years. It said the number of doctors finishing medical school won’t be enough to replace those who retire or emigrate, forcing Canada to rely increasingly on foreign-trained doctors.

Eva Ryten, a co-author of the study, said excessive reliance on foreign doctors is unwise.

``Standards are not uniform around the world,″ she said. ``You can get some very good ones and you can get some less good ones.″

Canada’s health minister, Allan Rock, says a serious doctor shortage is unlikely. But he expressed concern about a growing exodus of nurses from Canada, acknowledging many were dismayed by the cutbacks.

The Canadian Nurses Association says there will be a shortage of at least 60,000 nurses within 12 years.

Public reaction to the doctors’ work stoppages has been mixed. Many Canadians support the goal of increased health-care funding, but some are angry that patients are used as pawns.

``The doctors are being selfish,″ said Angela Langille when a walkout closed an Alberta clinic where she sought treatment for her 2-year-old son’s ear infection. ``There’s got to be a better way for them to get their point across.″

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