Even doctors who want to stay often can’t

·3 min read

Dr. Andrew O’Keefe says he and one of his Class of 2014 colleagues had a hard time believing there were so many medical school graduates who wanted to stay in Newfoundland and Labrador but ended up leaving.

“As time went on, we both kind of heard this narrative that there’s a physician shortage in Newfoundland and that people don’t want to come back to work here,” O’Keefe said Wednesday, Oct. 27.

“That was something that wasn’t really reflected in our lived experience, so we wanted to examine that a little bit further and see whether we could get some actual science around this.”

So he and his former classmate, Dr. Monica Kidd, met a couple of times in the summer to discuss it, then joined up with Gerald Farrell to do a survey of graduates last month.

The results were a surprise.

Of approximately 300 physicians who graduated from Memorial University's medical school between 2003-18, 294 responded. Seventy-eight per cent (229) indicated they wanted to work exclusively in the province, or at least preferred to work in the province over another location, at the beginning of their post-graduate training.

However, only 55 per cent (161) of respondents were working in Newfoundland and Labrador at the time of the survey.

“I knew there were people who wanted to work in Newfoundland but who were not here. I didn’t think it would be as big as 25 per cent,” O’Keefe told The Telegram. “It’s a pretty significant number. If you think of all the graduates of MUN medical school, that 25 per cent of them would like to be living in Newfoundland but aren’t for some reason, that’s a lot of people.”

The obvious question is, why?

O’Keefe said that may be something they consider digging into afterwards by conducting interviews or focus groups, but they wanted to make the initial findings public first.

“It’s a striking number, and it’s an unfortunate number, but we wanted to come out with that information and make people aware of it sooner rather than later.”

But he has some ideas as to why graduates aren’t staying.

“In many cases, there may not be job offers for people whose practices may be tied to a hospital, for example. If you’re a surgeon, you need to have access to an operating room.”

In an ironic twist, that’s exactly what happened to Kidd, who announced last month she was leaving the province after practising family medicine in Ferryland.

Her husband, a surgeon, couldn’t land a position.

Kidd wrote an emotional farewell piece recently for the CBC, in which she lamented having to give up her patients and hit the road.

“I trust that my colleagues will continue working their guts out to look after them,” she wrote. “I also believe we should open the taps and provide every primary-care resource at our disposal: train more nurse practitioners, allow pharmacists to work to their full scope, call the midwives. Lord knows we could use as many shoulders to this wheel as possible.”

O’Keefe, an allergist and clinical immunologist, says he and Kidd didn’t want the narrative to be about them.

“There’s certainly something personal about this research for her and I both, but we didn’t want this research to be about our own personal stories. We wanted to know what’s happening with everyone.”

But he admits even he feels deflated by the situation in the province, and about the tone coming from some sectors in the stalled contact talks between the government and the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association.

“It’s pretty disheartening to wake up every morning and hear this stuff in the news that makes you feel that there’s not much support for what you do,” he said. “It’s hard to keep your chin up these days.”

Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram

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