'A talent pool we should be tapping into’: Foreign-trained doctors could be key to flattening the curve

Canada needs more health care workers to combat coronavirus. (Zoltan Balogh/MTI via AP)

An infection control epidemiologist believes it may be the opportune time for the Canadian health system to be flexible and integrate foreign physicians who may not have gained licenses in Canada.

“We can’t manufacture doctors, we can’t manufacture nurses, we have these experts and we should make use of them, because the situation will become extremely desperate soon,” said Furness, an assistant professor of information in health policy at the University of Toronto.

Last week, the Irish Medical Council told government officials they should incorporate refugee and asylum seekers who were trained as doctors in their home countries, but not in Ireland.

Much like Canada, the council insisted their priority was to bring back retired doctors first, but noted that these doctors could provide “essential support” to their efforts of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

Provinces across Canada announced they’re already moving towards bringing back retired nurses and doctors back to the frontlines, as cases of coronavirus increase.

Last week, the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario announced more than 3,300 nurses signed up to get back into the health system.

But Furness said he’s come across dozens of individuals who could jump into the health system to help the cause.

“I know a number of foreign-trained physicians, I teach them, this is a talent pool that we should  absolutely be tapping into,” said Furness. “We should have thought of this before even the Irish did, because we probably have proportionately far more.” 

While Canada has adopted and began to aggressively recommend social and physical distancing and taken precautionary steps of shuttering businesses, Furness noted adding additional bodies to the health field is the second route to flattening the curve.

“To attenuate the numbers of cases, that’s why we’ve been doing social distancing, that’s why we’ve shut down our economy... the other thing we can do is increase capacity to the health system,” he said.

Colin Furness, an assistant professor of information in health policy at the University of Toronto and infection control epidemiologists believes health systems in Canada should integrate foreign-trained physicians immediately to help fight against the outbreak of COVID-19.

Not all doctors, however, may be trained in infectious diseases and Furness says just having them practice their specialities in order to allow doctors in the system to move to intensive care units could be a way forward.

“We still have to cover off all these other areas, so even just thinking of all the other essential services that might be shorthanded,” he said. “Reshuffling and re-assigning is what makes the most sense.”

But Furness acknowledged the health system may not want to reduce its regulations at this time for fear of not being able to return to normal after the pandemic.

“If you give up that control, that gatekeeping control, you may never get it back, that would be the fear,” said Furness.

Gaining access to Canada’s system

Foreign physicians trying to practice in Canada need to have a medical degree from a globally accredited school, need to be licensed by the Medical Council of Canada, have post-graduate training in modern medicine and be certified by one of the three regulatory colleges in the country.

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C. said they are adopting an emergency registration policy for recently retired doctors and physicians who are licensed elsewhere in North America, and some fellows in their final year of residency. However, they said these exceptions are not being currently considered for foreign nationals.

Out east, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) wrote in an email response they will expedite the process of providing final year resident physicians with a restricted certificate to be able to practice.

“This is an evolving situation and the CPSO continues to work closely with our partners at the Ministry of Health and the OMA to ensure that we are providing the support and resources necessary to expand access to safe and appropriate care for Ontarians,” a spokesperson for the college wrote in an email.

An attendant in full protective gear aides people through the entrance of the Assessment Centre at Sunnybrooke Hospital in Toronto. (Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Despite his belief the situation will start to get worse, Furness doesn’t foresee the bodies that represent doctors coming forward and making the request to get foreign trained doctors into the system.

“The medical profession wouldn’t be the first to stand up and say, ‘We need to fill our ranks with people who we said last month couldn’t practice medicine,’” he said. 

“It could and should come from the provinces, there is no question.” 

At least one province is considering the move, according to a spokesperson for Ontario health minister Christine Elliot.

“Ontario Health is actively engaged on contingency planning that includes leveraging Ontario’s thousands of unlicensed internationally educated health professionals to help address gaps,” a spokesperson for Elliot wrote in an email email.

Across the globe, doctors and nurses are being infected with the virus, with at least 13 health care workers testing positive for COVID-19 just a week ago. With those health care workers then needing to be quarantined, the body count of medical professionals continues to drop.

“We need bodies, this will get worse, and when it does, we’ll look around and say we should’ve and could’ve,” said Furness.