TORONTO - Most Canadians who have a family doctor are satisfied with their physician, suggests a new survey that shows 54 per cent of respondents rate the service they receive as excellent.

More than one-third said the service was good, and only about one in 10 gave ratings of fair or poor.

The Canadian Press Harris-Decima poll released Thursday indicated that residents of Atlantic Canada were most satisfied, with two-thirds giving their doctors an excellent approval rating.

And coast to coast, more than four out of five of those with family doctors said they would not switch doctors even if they thought they could easily find another one.

Jeff Walker, senior vice-president of Harris-Decima, said some people might argue that there's so much pressure in the system that nobody would dare to move even if they were unhappy with their existing doctor.

"But these numbers don't bear that out," he said from Ottawa. "These numbers say essentially that people are generally pretty happy with the care that they're getting from their family doctor now."

Overall, 87 per cent of those surveyed actually have a family doctor - up a smidgen from 86 per cent in a similar poll last October.

Dr. Calvin Gutkin, executive director and CEO of the College of Family Physicians of Canada, said there are still more than four million Canadians who don't have a family doctor.

"Over the last few years, it's gone from 15 per cent of the population - 15 to 16 per cent - that did not have a family doctor to 14 and now, according to this, 13 per cent," he said.

He cited research that has found population health outcomes are "much superior" if everyone has a family doctor.

"Our goal, our target that we set a few years ago is that in Canada, 95 per cent of the population in every community would have a family doctor by 2012. So we're creeping towards that."

The survey suggested that the situation is best in British Columbia at 94 per cent with a family doctor and worst in Quebec, where only 75 per cent said they had a physician.

In terms of an age breakdown, Gutkin said it's good news that 91 per cent of people age 50 and over who were surveyed have a family doctor.

Older Canadians are the ones most in need of assistance with health issues such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and arthritis, he noted.

Only 78 per cent of those age 18 to 34 said they had a doctor.

"It's natural, it's probably human nature for those who are younger and feeling as though they're immortal to think that they don't need a physician," Gutkin observed.

But research suggests these people should have a family doctor too, he said.

"In terms of preventive care, making sure that you're aware of all the health habits that are going to keep you healthy and keep you able to be active and a functional person for your family and the world around you, the workplace, having a family physician makes a difference," he said.

Walker noted that a lot of younger adults haven't bothered to look for a family doctor and instead go to clinics or a hospital emergency department when they need help.

"Typically people really start actively going to a doctor either if and when they have a serious ailment or when they have a family themselves," he said.

Altogether, there were 2,000 respondents to the telephone omnibus survey, conducted from June 4 to 14. The findings are considered reliable within 2.2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.