Canadian Physicians: The Big Picture

Canadian Physicians: The Big Picture

Brand new data shows that there is a rising tide of physicians in our fair country—far outpacing the flow of the Canadian population itself.

With rural and women doctors leading the surge, the number of doctors coast to coast rose 14% between 2007 and 2011. Meanwhile, the country’s population grew just 4.7% in that time. You can find such facts in Supply, Distribution and Migration of Canadian Physicians, 2011, the latest version of this intriguing report, which CIHI has issued since its inception.

72,500 Coats

There were about 4% more physicians in 2011 than the year before. The Canadian tally stood at 72,500 in 2011, and every province saw a spike in the number of white coats. The east had the most doctors per residents in the country, with Nova Scotia, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador having 240, 231 and 231 per 100,000 people, respectively. (Even P.E.I., at the lower rate of 178, saw an increase from previous years.)

Family doctors or specialists? Well, it was a pretty even split, according to 2011 numbers. And when we say even, we mean 51% family physicians–49% specialists. This remained stable over the past half-decade.

CIHI has long devoted resources to measuring physician growth and monitoring the country’s number of general practitioners, because understanding these are vital to understanding the issue of access to health care.


The rural area of Canada is vastly larger than the urban area, geographically speaking. In that vastness, physician numbers were rising, to the tune of 10% from 2007 to 2011. That wasn’t to meet a rising patient load—the number of rural residents rose just 2%.

There are potential explanations aplenty for the shrinking gap between the number of urban and rural family physicians. Raymond Pong, a senior research fellow at the Centre for Rural and Northern Health Research, offered a few.

One is that the rising number of physicians may be pushing some doctors out of saturated major urban centres. Another is that governments have incentive policies and programs to encourage physicians to set up practice in rural communities. Examples in Ontario include the NRRR Initiative (with more than 200 physicians in over 60 communities) and the 43-year-old Underserviced Area Program.

A third potential reason is that Canadian medical schools are putting greater emphasis on rural training. Pong is a professor at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine, and he says the school is a notable example of this. “Research has shown that physicians tend to work where they train,” said Pong. “By providing rural and remote opportunities, it’s hoped that medical students and residents will be more likely to work in those areas. This policy may be beginning to bear fruit.”


Another notable finding of this report was a significant demographic change. The rising current of physicians in Canada held a great many women in 2011, when more than 36% of doctors were women, compared with 23% in 2007.

Again, the east came into play here. Quebec led the way, where 42% of physicians were women, with New Brunswick next at 36%. Meanwhile, P.E.I., Saskatchewan and Manitoba had the lowest percentages, at 28%, 32% and 32%.

Overall, assessing demographics in the physician world can uncover key questions. Is a large segment approaching retirement? Will young doctors in training be able to pick up the patient load? Will access to care be affected? Do women and men practise medicine differently? Are physicians distributed properly across the country? What areas are in need of more doctors?