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Finally Some Good News: The Doctor Is In

 

By Erin Anderson, The Globe and Mail

 

April 21, 2009

 

Canada

 

If the recession is making you sick, take comfort: Your doctor is more likely to stick around to look after you.


Across the country, family doctors are postponing plans to retire, or working more hours to fill shortages in small communities while waiting for their investments to rebound - an unexpected silver lining to the stock-market crash for areas with crippling doctor shortages.


Many doctors rely on personal savings to fund their retirement. Like their baby-boomer patients, they were just considering life after work - or at least, life with less work - when the markets collapsed.


"I don't know if you have heard the joke," said Lydia Hatcher, a family doctor in Mount Pearl, a small community outside St. John's. "How do you solve the doctor shortage? You have a major recession."


Dr. Hatcher, 52, former president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association, said two of her colleagues have decided not to close or reduce the size of their practices since the economic downturn began.


Her own plans - she had hoped to retire, or at least reduce her hours dramatically, no later than age 65 - now seem impossible, she said. Her investments have dropped by about 40 per cent. "If this doesn't get back on track, we'll all be working until we drop dead."


Setting that grim prediction aside, keeping doctors around for a few more years will be a bright spot in hard times for small communities where many people can't even get on a waiting list.


"From a government perspective, it's not a bad thing," Dr. Hatcher conceded. "Doctors will be less likely to retire, no doubt about it."


Which is good news, especially over the next year, as stress, sleepless nights and longer work hours raise Canadians' risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and colds.


Doctors aren't the only ones reconsidering their twilight years: Nearly 40 per cent of Canadians are postponing retirement for financial reasons, according to a January poll by Angus Reid. But in a country facing a dire shortage of doctors - the average age of the Canadian practitioner is 51 - the retirement of the local physician is often more cause for panic than party.


A town such as Clearwater, B.C., for instance, will take any break it can get. "It could give us a few years' breathing space," said Mayor John Harwood, who met with a doctor recently to try to woo him to the community.


For physicians, however, the recession has only highlighted the uncertainty of their retirement income - an issue the Canadian Medical Association has raised with the federal government, citing the British system of government-sponsored pensions.


But now doctors say they will be more likely to serve as locums in small communities - a service that reduces the strain in towns with few permanent doctors. And they may stay in practice longer, reducing the number of aging Canadians left scrambling when their family doctor closes shop.


Dale Dewar, 65, a rural family doctor in Wynyard, Sask., retired officially last summer, hoping to take a break. After a check on the finances, she and her husband, who stayed at home to care for their now-grown children and managed her practice, realized that wasn't possible. "I am working almost as much as when I was full-time," said Dr. Dewar, who has been filling in steadily as a locum in remote communities in British Columbia and Saskatchewan - in addition to a volunteer trip to Iraq to teach obstetrics. She has just signed a contract to work regular monthly stints in La Loche, in northern Saskatchewan, a position she would not have taken had the markets performed better. She pointed out that unlike many of her patients in the same situation, she is lucky to have an easy way to keep working. Even so, she said, "It's tiring. I take more precautions with regard to my health. I really would not be able to afford to be ill."


In the small community of Elmsdale, N.S., George Burden, 53, cares for about 2,000 people in his family practice - and he expects to be doing so for far longer than he had planned. Instead of cutting back at 60, he thinks he'll work until at least 70. One good thing: it's not hard to find retired doctors willing to cover holidays. "I can get someone to work for me more easily than before, although I am not sure that makes up for the big hole in my RRSP."


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