Cape Breton University is partnering with Dalhousie to sponsor five new seats at the Halifax medical school for students who live in rural Nova Scotia and commit to practising family medicine in a rural community for five years.
The pilot program will launch in September as part of CBU's efforts to research new ways to recruit, train and retain health-care workers in rural Nova Scotia, including in Cape Breton as well as Mi'kmaw and African Nova Scotian communities.
CBU's initiative received $5 million from the provincial government in March. Of that, $1.5 million will be spent over four years for the new medical school seats. The investment will bring the number of medical school seats at Dalhousie to 99.
"Given, you know, the current issues in health care, we do need kind of an all-hands-on-deck approach," said Health Minister Michelle Thompson.
"We're thrilled that these two universities would partner together in order to assist us in achieving the mandate of improving health care."
In addition to the five-year commitment to practise in a rural community, students accepted into the pilot program must be a Nova Scotian living in a rural area, including anywhere in Cape Breton. They must also meet Dalhousie Medical School admission requirements and be willing to train full-time at the university.
The Progressive Conservatives campaigned last summer on a promise to fix health care in Nova Scotia. Though the sector faces challenges across the province, service availability and the closures of ERs in rural areas are of particular concern.
Thompson said despite the introduction of virtual care and urgent treatment centres, rural areas especially face shortages of primary care providers.
Dr. Margaret Fraser, a family practitioner in Sydney, said access to family medicine in most parts of Nova Scotia is "abysmal."
"If you apply to a medical school in the United States, you have a one-in-two chance of getting in. In most places in Canada, you have a one-in-20 chance of getting in, and that's not because the people who are applying are so much less qualified," said Fraser.
"It's simply that there are not enough seats. We have ranked 31st in the 38 industrialized nations in terms of the numbers of physicians per capita."
Fraser said the pilot program's five-year term of service is something that should keep some doctors in rural areas for a longer time than a traditional two-year contract.
"In two years, you really haven't set down roots anywhere. But in five years, you may have met somebody. You may be in a relationship. You may have children who are starting school," said Fraser.
"So I think a five-year return of service is a more realistic return of service to put in. It's more likely to produce people who will put down roots and stay in the area."
Fraser added that she thinks the five-year term is a fair trade-off for people being accepted into the program.
"They're being given a really good opportunity, and in return, they're being asked to give something back to their community. I don't think that's unreasonable," she said.
CBU and Dalhousie will work together to pick people from the Dalhousie Medical School wait-list for the 2022-23 academic year to fill the new seats.
The 2022-23 provincial budget also set aside $1.2 million to pay for 16 seats that were added to Dalhousie Medical School in 2019. It's the fourth and final year of added funding to pay for those additional seats.
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