Canadian family doctors providing better access to care, lagging behind in offering digital services

The results of an international survey of family doctors show that Canadian doctors are practising more in group settings and offering more weeknight and weekend hours for their patients.

How Canada Compares: Results From the Commonwealth Fund’s 2019 International Health Policy Survey of Primary Care Physicians, released by the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI), shows that 57% of Canadian family doctors offered weeknight hours and 50% offered weekend hours within their own practices in 2019. This was higher than the average from the 11 countries surveyed by the Commonwealth Fund (weeknight: 44%; weekend: 36%).

The survey results also show that more Canadian family doctors were practising in group settings in 2019 (65%) compared with 2015 (60%). Group practices are more likely to offer weekend appointments, use electronic medical records (EMRs) and offer patients the option to book their appointments online.

Fewer Canadian family doctors offered patients the ability to communicate electronically: 23% of doctors offered patients the option to ask medical questions via email or a secure website, and 10% offered online requests for prescription renewals. These rates are among the lowest of all countries surveyed (Commonwealth Fund averages: 65% questions via email/website; 52% prescription renewals).

“Access to primary health care is a cornerstone of an effective health care system. Changes such as more group practice settings are meant to help improve access for Canadians,” says Tracy Johnson, the director of Health System Analysis and Emerging Issues at CIHI. “International comparisons provide an important perspective and a great opportunity to learn from other countries’ policies and practices so that we can continue to strengthen the primary health care system in Canada.”

Canadian doctors catching up to international peers in offering digital services

We continue to make progress as more Canadian family doctors (86%) are using EMRs now compared with 2015 (73%) and 2009 (37%). However, Canada still sits below the Commonwealth Fund average of 93%.

Additional analysis from Canada Health Infoway  shows that Canadian family doctors who use multiple EMR functions were overall more satisfied than their non-digital peers with practising medicine (57% versus 39%). They were also more likely to use digital tools to improve patient quality of care.

While the majority of Canadians can now access patient information from across the health system through provincial or territorial electronic health records (EHRs), challenges remain with sharing information directly with other clinicians. For example, only 25% of Canadian family doctors used EMRs to exchange clinical summaries and 33% to exchange lists of medications with other physicians (Commonwealth Fund averages: 63% and 62%, respectively).

“There has been significant growth in EMR adoption and use among Canadian primary care physicians over the past decade, and a closing of the gap with our international peers,” explains Simon Hagens, Senior Director, Performance Analytics, Canada Health Infoway, the organization responsible for advancing digital health in Canada. “We appreciate the international perspective the Commonwealth Fund survey provides and will use it to identify best practice and inform our work in Canada.”

About Canada Health Infoway

Infoway helps improve the health of Canadians by working with partners to accelerate the development, adoption and effective use of digital health across Canada. Through our investments, we help deliver better quality and access to care, and more efficient delivery of health services for patients and clinicians. Infoway is an independent, not-for-profit organization funded by the federal government. Visit

About the Commonwealth Fund

Based in the United States, the Commonwealth Fund is a private foundation that aims to promote a high-performing health care system that achieves better access, improved quality and greater efficiency, particularly for society’s most vulnerable populations.

The Commonwealth Fund’s 2019 survey polled primary care doctors in 11 countries on topics such as access to carecoordination of patient care and use of information technology. More than 2,500 primary care physicians responded to the survey.

Within Canada, funding for an expanded Canadian sample was provided by CIHI, Canada Health Infoway, the ministère de la Santé et des Services sociaux du Québec and Ontario Health, Quality unit (formerly Health Quality Ontario).

About CIHI

The Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) is an independent, not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing essential health information to all Canadians.

CIHI works closely with federal, provincial and territorial partners and stakeholders throughout Canada to gather, package and disseminate information to inform policy, management, care and research, leading to better and more equitable health outcomes for all Canadians.

Health information has become one of society’s most valuable public goods. For 25 years, CIHI has set the pace on data privacy, security, accessibility and innovation to improve Canada’s health systems.

CIHI: Better data. Better decisions. Healthier Canadians.


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