The provincial government will pay for five more seats for Newfoundland and Labrador students in the undergraduate program at Memorial University's medical school, in an attempt to retain more doctors in the long run.
The five seats, which will be added for the coming fall semester, are in addition to the 60 seats already allocated to Newfoundland and Labrador students.
Premier Andrew Furey said Tuesday the extra seats will help with the province's doctor shortage.
"It's not going to pay dividends tomorrow, but it'll pay dividends for the people of Newfoundland and Labrador in six, 10 years and beyond," he said.
The announcement comes as the province's doctor shortage shows signs of getting worse — last week, the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association announced a poll showing that 125,000 residents are now without a family doctor.
There are a total of 80 seats available per year in MUN's undergraduate MD program. The Newfoundland and Labrador government is taking over five of the 10 seats previously allocated to New Brunswick students; the New Brunswick government last year announced it would stop funding those seats beginning in 2022.
According to Dr. Margaret Steele, dean of MUN's faculty of medicine, about 65 to 70 per cent of Newfoundland and Labrador students who graduate from the undergraduate medical program stay in this province.
"It's really important to train them here, and it is an effective way to have competent physicians," she said.
Steele said one of the other five seats will now be allocated to a student from Nunavut, and the university is in talks with the military to fill the remaining four.
NLMA president Dr. Susan MacDonald said the extra seats are a positive sign but they won't help people in Newfoundland and Labrador who currently don't have a family physician.
She said the additional seats are a long-term solution, noting any prospective family physicians starting the program in September will complete at least six years of school before they begin practising.
"That's a long time," MacDonald said.
Interim Progressive Conservative Leader David Brazil agreed that the news was positive but said he wants to see more done to solve recruitment and retention of physicians in the immediate future.
"We have to find incentives to ensure they stay in Newfoundland and Labrador, and they go to remote and rural communities so that we all have access to health care," he said.
Brazil also said he would like to see the provincial government require students from Newfoundland and Labrador to agree to practise in this province — something Furey said isn't happening.
"Having people sign at that early of a stage … is a difficult proposition, I think, for the system and medical students alike," the premier said.
Situation will worsen: NLMA president
In 2022, communities and regions across the province have been losing doctors, and some remaining physicians say they're burning out.
MacDonald said she believes the situation will get worse before it gets better.
"What we're seeing is the result of COVID on top of a continual year after year, decade after decade, practising in an old style and not really paying attention to human resources in medicine in this province," she said.
However, MacDonald said there are some signs of improvement — like the introduction of virtual care and a new agreement between the medical association and the provincial government.
Negotiations between the provincial government and the NLMA over that agreement last year were contentious, but MacDonald said the relationship is now positive.
"I think the government is really listening to us now. We've had a very good relationship over the last year with the premier," MacDonald said.
Georgia Darmonkow, president of the MUN undergraduate MD class of 2024, said she plans to stay in Newfoundland and Labrador to practise — despite the stories of physician frustration and burnout.
"I don't think that would impact me and my decision to stay here," she said. "I think that those problems exist no matter where you go."