Grande Prairie trained doctors coming soon

The province is putting $224.8 million into physician training at Northwestern Polytechnic (NWP) and the University of Lethbridge.

Operating expenses will receive $55.6 million; $126 million is tagged for physician training expansion. Just over $43 million in capital funding will go to a training facility at the University of Lethbridge.

“Anything that we can do to have physicians trained locally and stay in the north helps us when it comes to retention and attraction of medical professionals, and it also encourages people to even look at that field,” said Kate Potter, South Peace Professional Attraction and Retention Committee chair.

“What we find is that residents from the north often won't even apply even if they would make it into the program; they're just either nervous about applying or haven't even looked or considered it, so this type of announcement where we can get training locally, really allows us to have more physicians and healthcare professionals at our fingertips in the north,” said Potter, who is also the mayor of Sexsmith.

NWP hopes to have its first class of medical students in Fall 2025, with about 30 seats.

“We're excited for the opportunities for enhanced education and enhanced health care services in the north as this program develops and sustains a steady pipeline of medical talent and resources in the north,” said Vanessa Sheane, NWP president and CEO.

“There has never been more demand for dedicated and skilled medical professionals with ties to rural communities.”

The University of Alberta is partnering with NWP to create its program.

“We will recruit local, we will train local and we will retain local to practice in the communities,” said Brenda Hemmelgarn, dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Alberta.

According to NWP, the “collaborative medical school programming” will be conducted through the NWP School of Health at the Grande Prairie campus and the Health Education Centre (HEC) in the Grande Prairie Regional Hospital. The HEC has 40,000 square feet for teaching, research and administration.

The province says local training “is the first step of many steps to solve the rural physician shortage” and will keep physicians in rural areas.

Credentials for physicians training in rural areas will still come from the universities.

A rural admission stream, focused on locals who want to train and practice in local rural areas, is in development, said Rajan Sawhney, Advanced Education minister.

Potter says SPPARC has submitted a plan through the Rural Health Professions Action Plan (RhPAP) to run a high school event hoping to attract students to the medical field.

She said getting high school students familiar with NWP and the HEC will help local students who want to pursue the medical field, as they will feel more familiar with the locations.

City of Grande Prairie Mayor Jackie Clayton noted the closures of local rural health centres show the dire need for local healthcare professionals.

“We know a large portion of our population, including myself, doesn't have a family doctor, and so with that, I think that it's something that is addressed at provincial and federal levels; there is a need; we need to train more doctors,” she said.

Clayton said the partnership between the UofA and NWP will lead to success for the region.

The province said the two schools will produce about 100 practicing physicians a year and offer hands-on learning experiences in rural communities around the training centres.

Each general practitioner in the teaching clinic could care for about 1,200 patients, reducing congestion in local emergency departments, according to the province.

“Addressing health care staffing challenges in rural Alberta is one of our top priorities,” said Adriana LaGrange, Minister of Health.

“We are implementing a wide range of actions to attract and retain physicians in rural communities, and these regional training centres are part of that work.

“They will provide excellent training opportunities for rural medical students and, at the same time, will strengthen the local primary health care system and help take pressures off local emergency departments.”

Currently, there are only two Doctor of Medicine programs in the province, at the University of Alberta and University of Calgary.

Last year, the province announced $1 million into research into creating medical facilities at NWP and the University of Lethbridge.

Clayton noted that work is ongoing.

“The provincial government is working hard to attract more doctors from other countries to move to Alberta and I know the federal government is working in conjunction with the provincial government to streamline those processes,” she said.

Clayton also noted that in the last 18 months, she has met with over 20 specialists who are considering potentially practicing in the region.

“I'm proud to say (I’m) batting a high percentage of success, and it's great to see so many specialists moved to the region and seeing the opportunities of not only living in this great community but working in great regional facilities.”

Clayton noted that recently a urologist decided to work in the region after making an initial visit.

“Healthcare professional recruitment is going very well; however, there's still a significant need for that general practitioner piece,” said Clayton.

Jesse Boily, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Town & Country News