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Alberta to address rural doctor shortages through training in Lethbridge and Grande Prairie

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The provincial government has unveiled its plan to bring more physicians to areas that are currently underserved, but some doctors aren't convinced the strategy will address the real problem.

Health Minister Jason Copping and Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides announced $1 million in funding for regional post-secondary institutions, including the University of Lethbridge and and Northwestern Polytechnic in Grande Prairie, to explore ways of offering medical education outside of Alberta's two largest cities.

Currently, the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta are the only medical schools in the province.

"It's been a very tough three years for physicians but I think we're turning the corner," said Copping. "Alberta, historically, has been one of the best places in Canada — the best place in Canada — to practise medicine and we're working very hard to keep it that way.

"We still have a lot of work to do though because the overall supply is not the only issue. We need more physicians and, in particular, we need them in smaller communities where it's harder to recruit them and harder to keep them.

"The best way to recruit people to the place you want them to work is to train them there."

Mike Mahon, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Lethbridge, agrees.

"The evidence would suggest that when students are trained in rural or non-large urban settings, that the likelihood of them staying in that specific setting or at least in a rural setting or a smaller city setting is much higher."

Several rural communities in Alberta, including Airdrie, Milk River, Ponoka and Beaverlodge, have temporarily closed their emergency departments due to a dearth of available physicians.

Larry Liebelt, mayor of Milk River, says it's good the problem is being worked on.

"They realize there's a problem in rural Alberta. I think it's good that they're figuring out that rural Alberta is outside of the cities, there's actually a lot of people that don't live in the big cities."

Bev Meundel-Atherstone, Lethbridge Friends of Medicare chapter chair, is less convinced.

"As usual, the UCP government is excellent at rhetoric and creating a smoke screen and saying they're going to do something, announcing something that's only an exploration study but not putting money into the real thing."

Copping has previously stated that the province's doctor shortage is a government priority and progress has been made to address the issue. According to Copping, the number of registered doctors in Alberta increased by 254 throughout 2022, bringing the total number of physicians in the province to 11,407.

'WILL TAKE TIME'

While news of the training initiative is welcome, some Alberta doctors are concerned that the extra help won't come quick enough.

"Only 6.7 per cent of physicians in Alberta work and live in rural areas," said Dr. Aaron Johnston, associate dean for distributed learning and rural initiatives at the University of Calgary.

"That's far less than we need, and the training that was announced today, the exploration of additional training, will take time because there are limitations on training capacity in rural Alberta."

He says it's not a simple matter of adding spaces and suddenly there will be doctors to fill them.

"We have to have physicians who are acting as teachers who are able to take on more students," he said.

Johnston says rural family medicine residencies are small – the residency in Medicine Hat currently has seven spots per year and the program in Lethbridge has nine.

About 70 per cent of the people who go through those programs end up choosing rural, but that's 70 per cent of a small number.

"So my hope would be that over the next year we explore this idea and then make it real," said Johnston. "Because medical training is long. Here at the University of Calgary, we have a three-year undergraduate curriculum and, on top of that, physicians need to do at least a two-year residency in family medicine before they're able to practise.

"That's a five-year lead time."

Tens of thousands of people in southern Alberta have been unable to find a family doctor, with many of those residents on waitlists for over a year.

The province previously announced an additional $20 million to its $80-million business costs program in an effort to help rural doctors cover their clinic expenses.

(With files from CTV News' Kevin Fleming, Quinn Kennan)  

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