OTTAWA — The loss of Saudi Arabian resident physicians in Canada's hospitals will likely cause delays, but ultimately won't impact the quality of care, says a health care group that represents the majority of university hospitals.
The primary concern among some hospitals over the departure of the Saudi students is that there will be a delay in care in certain medical fields, said Paul-Emile Cloutier, the president and CEO of HealthCareCan.
About 1,000 Saudi residents and fellows were called back to the kingdom when it abruptly suspended diplomatic relations with Canada, a dramatic and angry response to a government tweet that criticized the Saudis for the arrest of female social activists.
The medical residents have been told to return to the country by Aug. 31, forcing hospitals to come up with contingency plans in order to fill the gaps.
Cloutier said contingency planning includes working out call schedules, weekend coverage and determining who will train students, which was the responsibility of the residents.
And health care is not exclusive to office hours, he added: many Saudi residents cover weekends and overnight call shifts.
While he stopped short of naming specific programs likely to experience delays, Cloutier said he knows of a neurosurgery division that will lose 13 members of a 20-resident cohort.
"That means the person who would be getting the care might have to wait a little longer than usual because there's 13 people absent," he said.
In a recent column on the social media service LinkedIn, Dr. Frank Rybicki, chair of the radiology department at the University of Ottawa, warned of "staggering" implications for both Canada's health care system and the students themselves.
"Disrupting the training for young Saudi physicians is heartbreaking for most, and stressful for all," he wrote, describing the residents and fellows as front-line medical workers, regardless of their educational status.
Rybicki is urging the kingdom to extend the deadline for the residents to Oct. 15, which would split the academic semester and allow more time for discussion.
"From the Canadian hospital side, finding the proper human resources to manage the void created by the departure of our Saudi trainees will take herculean efforts," he wrote. "Having a few months of grace will help hospitals manage and cope."
Thierry Belair, a spokesman for Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor, would only say that the government values the contributions residents make to the Canadian health care system, adding that, "We will always welcome them here."
The federal government is continuing to engage with provinces, territories and partners like the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons and will "support them as they work to address this issue," he added.
Janice Dickson, The Canadian Press