TORONTO - A new report says that over the last five years, the number of doctors in Canada has increased at a rate three times faster than that of the population.

The Canadian Institute for Health Information says there were more than 72,500 physicians caring for patients in 2011, a rise of 14 per cent since 2007.

The Canadian population grew 4.7 per cent over the same time period.

Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Quebec had the highest physician-to-population ratios, while Saskatchewan and Prince Edward Island had lowest.

In 2011, 51 per cent of Canada’s doctors practised family medicine, while 49 per cent were medical and surgical specialists.

The report also found that more doctors are practising in rural Canada compared to five years earlier, including 15 per cent of the country's general practitioners.

"The encouraging news is that the gap between the number of urban and rural family physicians is decreasing," Geoff Ballinger, CIHI's manager of health human resources, said Thursday in a statement.

"Many regions have implemented programs to persuade new graduates to work in rural areas. These initiatives encourage doctors to practise in communities where physician access would otherwise be difficult."

Yet despite improvements, some rural communities continue to face doctor shortages.

For instance, 3,000 residents of Enderby, B.C., will soon have only one doctor. Five doctors were practising in the northern Okanagan community until June, when two retired and one moved to Vancouver — and now a fourth is moving to Saskatchewan.

The doctor shortage has forced closures or reduced hours at hospital emergency departments in several rural B.C. communities.

The CIHI report also found a growing proportion of doctors are female. Last year, about 36 per cent of Canada’s doctors were women — a jump of 23 per cent from 2007. Over the same period, the number of male physicians rose by just nine per cent.

At a provincial level, Quebec and New Brunswick had the highest percentages of female physicians last year, at 42 per cent and 36 per cent respectively. Prince Edward Island, at 28 per cent, and Saskatchewan and Manitoba, both at 32 per cent, had the lowest proportions of female doctors.

"Today, we have more physicians than ever before," Jean-Marie Berthelot, vice-president of programs at CIHI, said Thursday in a statement. "However, while numbers are increasing, they don’t tell the whole story.

"Better understanding of the organization of care, patient needs and physician workload will help determine whether or not increased physician numbers are translating into improved access to health care for all Canadians," he said.

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