LAKELAND – The provincial government continues its attempts to bring more doctors to rural communities in the province. On Thursday, Alberta announced it would use $1 million to develop two regional health training centres for physicians in Grand Prairie and Lethbridge.
The funding will be used to explore “a new model that will ultimately increase training of rural physicians” by the University of Alberta, University of Calgary, University of Lethbridge, and Northwestern Polytechnic in Grand Prairie, according to Minister of Advanced Education Demetrios Nicolaides.
“This includes exploring the feasibility of delivering training through the regional health centres in Lethbridge and Grand Prairie,” he said. “This plan would also propose and detail hands-on learning opportunities to be delivered and made available in these regional training hubs.”
Nicolaides said the opportunities will lead to greater recruitment and retention of health care workers, stating that “research shows very clearly that when students train closer to home, they are more likely to stay in that region throughout their entire careers.”
Nicolaides said the investment is one piece of Alberta’s larger strategy to improve the province’s healthcare system. “This plan will create a solid and strong foundation for physicians to work in our rural and remote communities,” he said.
When asked for comment by a member of the media on the closures of health care centres in rural communities due to the lack of staff, Minister of Health Jason Copping said, “Help is on the way.”
He echoed Nicolaides’ words and referred to the provincial announcement, stating that “this is just one piece of a much broader strategy,” to which he describes as a long-term strategy. He said it will take time for the program to get set up and get doctors trained.
“But if you don’t start, you’ll never get there,” said Copping. As for the provincial government’s medium and short-term strategies, he referred to Alberta's expansion of additional seats for health care workers in post-secondary institutions.
Copping also said, “we are leveraging newcomers,” including bringing in more international medical graduates (IMG) in the province to augment the healthcare workforce, and also “streamlining immigration.” For example, he mentioned accelerating the process of internationally trained physicians and nurses being able to practice in Alberta.
When asked for an update on previous initiatives by the provincial government, namely the $6 million RESIDE program that aimed to recruit doctors in 15 rural communities across Alberta, including Lac La Biche and Cold Lake, Copping said “it didn’t work – but that’s okay.”
“You need to learn from it,” said Copping, explaining they changed RESIDE’s criteria and made it “much more wide open.” Additional money has also been put in the program as part of Alberta’s agreement with the Alberta Medical Association (AMA), said Copping, explaining RESIDE is one way to put doctors into areas in the province where there are “particular” shortages.
“We are going to keep working until we get it right,” he said, adding that the “worst thing to do is not to do anything.” He also said the province is having “some success,” including 254 physicians coming into Alberta last year.
Copping said Alberta reached an agreement with the AMA, stating that part of the agreement includes “increased funding particularly to recruitment and retention for doctors in rural areas,” with a focus on family physicians.
Another part of the agreement also includes exploring “different models” of compensation to doctors. “We know that some graduates from med schools, they don’t want to run a business, they just want to work as a doctor.”
Thus, the “fee for service” model for doctors with private businesses may not work for doctors who are not running businesses.
Copping also addressed a question with regard to Alberta’s response to the shortage of obstetricians in the province.
While he did not specifically indicate a program, he said, that “we continue to do work with our local program, and looking to expand that on the short-term so that you can actually move doctors around the province where there is a shortage.”
He also reiterated using IMGs to help with the shortage in the short-term term while referring to the provincial announcement as the long-term solution.
Copping also said that he “appreciates some of the frustrations that Albertas are feeling, and this is a challenge that we’re not only facing in this province, but quite frankly is being faced in provinces across the country.”
“But we are working on it. It is improving and it’s taking time,” he said. “But we will get there, and we’re not going to stop until we get there.”