Curing the doctor shortage

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Why doctors are finding it hard to make small-town Saskatchewan home

Iryn Tushabe
News Writer

The shortage of doctors in rural Saskatchewan has reached critical levels, and the province is doing everything it can to attract and keep physicians in smaller towns.

Alison Thompson is a second-year medical student at the University of Saskatchewan. She is also president of the Student Medical Society of Saskatchewan. Thompson thinks many doctors are fleeing from the province’s small centres because of two issues – recruitment and retention.

“Saskatchewan actively recruits doctors from abroad. Therefore we tend to get lots of international graduates. I definitely know that some come and just find that it is not a good fit and is quite different from where they originally practiced. Others, after coming to Saskatchewan, find other locations to practice that are more financially lucrative, offer more practice flexibility, or include work in a larger centre,” said Thompson.

“We have some of the highest rates of medical graduates leaving the province for practice elsewhere. A major competitor in this respect are provinces like Alberta and British Columbia, which offer more pay both in residency training and as a practicing physician,” Thompson said. “A major issue right now is the resident’s contract with the government – negotiations are ongoing, and students definitely think having a contract is a factor in where they choose to do their residency.

Thompson plans to stay and work in Saskatchewan when she graduates because she was born and raised here. Her family lives in the province as well.

She notes that a small number of students may not wish to stay in Saskatchewan due to a dislike of the place itself, but believes that many students can be convinced to stay.

“I don’t think our medical graduates and physicians are leaving the province because they do not want to be in Saskatchewan, period. I think they leave because the province is not doing everything it can to make Saskatchewan as attractive as other locations. This includes everything from quality of training, workplace environment, salary, housing, and much more,” said Thompson.

Thompson would also like to see competitive salaries and a contract in residency.

“We also used to have a competitive edge in the sense that we did not have to pay back our student loans until after residency, and this recently changed. The government created a short-term plan; however, a long-term plan for residents and student loan payment deferral would give Saskatchewan that edge, given that an average Canadian medical student comes out of school with approximately $150,000 in debt […] and therefore money does make a difference,” she explained.

Saskatchewan’s Medical Association (SMA), which advocates for a quality healthcare system for Saskatchewan, has put some measures in place to retain physicians who might be leaving due to poor compensation for their work.

Dr. Guruswamy Sridhar, president of SMA, said, “We are trying to get parity with other provinces so that at least that is less of a factor for them to leave.”

“On top of that, we are promoting collegiality with our colleagues in the rural and urban areas to increase support. So, from the Medical Association perspective, we are looking at some programs that will probably help us to support them so that they feel part of our community and that is very important,” added Guruswamy

Collegiality, explained Guruswamy, helps rural doctors to work collaboratively with other physicians so they are not isolated and feel like they are all alone. 

Thompson acknowledges that there are lots of changes being put in place, both by the students themselves and the government to make Saskatchewan a more attractive place to practice in.

“Students have actually met with the Physician Recruitment Agency of Saskatchewan to discuss our ideas and we hope this agency is able to make positive changes to Saskatchewan practice. As students, we have asked to have our rural exposure enhanced, as many students find the variety in rural practice very desirable along with the sense of community,” 

“Our college, along with the Recruitment Agency, is working towards providing opportunities for exposure and training along with creating a distributed education model in which students have the opportunity to train in areas outside of Saskatoon and Regina for up to half or more of their medical education,” explained Thompson. “Currently Prince Albert is coming onboard and are successfully training senior medical students for the first time, a trend which we hope to expand in the coming years.”

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