NL

Whitbourne mayor wants more seats in program for internationally trained family doctors

To help alleviate the doctor shortage in Newfoundland and Labrador, Whitbourne Mayor Hilda Whelan is calling for an increase to the number of seats in a program that assesses whether family doctors trained outside the country meet Canadian standards

Hilda Whelan says more seats for practice-ready assessment would help solve doctor shortage

Woman looking at an document in a folder.
Whitbourne Mayor Hilda Whelan wants to see an expansion of a program that assesses whether internationally trained physicians are ready to practise family medicine. (Heather Gillis/CBC)

To help alleviate the doctor shortage in Newfoundland and Labrador, the mayor of Whitbourne is calling for an increase to the number of seats in a program that assesses whether family doctors trained outside the country meet Canadian standards.

Hilda Whelan says there aren't enough doctors already in Canada to meet demand in the province.

"There is such a shortage of doctors, we can't get them from other provinces. It's not going to happen. We have to rely on these doctors," Whelan said.

"We've been serviced so well by these foreign doctors," she said.

The program, called the practice-ready assessment and administered by Memorial University's medical school, is a 12-week workplace-based competency assessment to determine whether internationally trained family doctors have the proper skills and are able to provide safe, quality care.

The Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association estimated earlier this year that about 136,000 people in the province don't have a family doctor.

Whelan has started a petition calling on the provincial government to not only increase the size of the assessment program but to also appoint someone to help doctors navigate the process. 

A doctor wears a lab coat and stethoscope in an exam room at a health clinic in Calgary, Friday, July 14, 2023.
The practice-ready assessment program is administered by Memorial University's medical school. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

The practice-ready assessment program offers about 20 seats to doctors trained abroad, according to a statement from Memorial University's faculty of medicine. The fall 2023 assessment is underway with nine physician candidates, and there are 33 applications in process, according to the statement, from faculty spokesperson Virginia Middleton.

"I was shocked to find out that they only take 20 a year," said Andrew Pretty, who is on a committee with Whelan that is advocating for the reinstatement of a 24/7 emergency room in the Whitbourne area.

Internationally trained doctors are vital to rural health-care, says Whitbourne mayor

6 months ago
Duration 2:19
Whitbourne Mayor Hilda Whelan is calling on the province to increase the size of a program that assesses family doctors trained outside of Canada.

"It's not nearly enough seats to take care of the demand we have," he said.

In New Brunswick, said Pretty, about 100 internationally trained doctors applied to the province's practice-ready assessment in October.

"B.C. recently just increased theirs from 30 seats to 96. We should be doing the same here," he said. 

Process to get practicing can be lengthy

Before doctors who trained outside of Canada can apply for the assessment, they have to first apply to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Newfoundland and Labrador for a provisional licence.

The college verifies whether the person meets all the requirements — including being a medical school graduate and being registered as a family physician — and confirms that they've passed certain exams.

According to the college's Elyse Bruce, the college has approved 200 applications for provisional licences, pending completion of the practice-ready assessment, since July 1, 2019.

The medical school says since the assessment program's 2021 launch, 30 family doctors have been added to the province's health-care system. That's too slow, said Pretty.

"If we're relying on PRA alone, it'll take 10 years to get enough doctors," he said.

Man standing with his hands in his pockets outside a house.
Andrew Pretty sits on a committee for the local service district in Dildo and is also on a committee that is advocating for the health clinic in Whitbourne to become a 24/7 emergency room again. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

The medical school notes that just because the college grants a provisional licence to an international graduate, that doesn't mean they will be accepted into the assessment. The program doesn't accept people with long gaps in their medical practice, according to the school, or accept people who have practised for only a few months at a time. 

Middleton says the school alone can't control the number of people who pass through the program because other factors are at play, like the availability of practising doctors who can assess the applicants, or the timing of exams needed before the assessment.

Pretty worries that the sometimes lengthy process will deter people from choosing to practise in the province. The issue also affects Canadians who trained in medical schools outside the country and want to return home, he said.

"My question is how many of those are going to stick around in six months to a year's time? When they finally get a seat, they'll be moved off to another province, like B.C., who has seats," he said.

A Health Department statement from spokesperson Laura Thomas says the department is working with the university to review the program capacity and increase the number of candidates who go through it, address barriers to their employment and increase.

The statement says the department can't say exactly how many doctors are needed to fill the shortage, but Newfoundland and Labrador Health Services has 158 active job postings for physicians, and 57 of them are for family doctors. 

Thomas's statement says the Health Department has been able to recruit 73 permanent physicians to work in the province.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Heather Gillis

Journalist

Heather Gillis is a journalist based in St. John's. She has been working at CBC NL since March 2020, but has been reporting in Newfoundland and Labrador since 2011. Heather has a bachelor of journalism from the University of King's College and a bachelor of arts from Memorial University. You can reach her by email at Heather.Gillis@cbc.ca

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