Province to give rural medicine a boost

·3 min read

Medical school is a tough slog: not only is the study strenuous, but it’s also expensive.

To help attract would-be physicians to rural communities in the province, the Alberta government is investing $6 million to lower financial barriers students might be facing.

The money will be administered by the Rural Health Professions Action Plan in a return of service agreement program over the course of three years. The program will help pay medical school costs for students who commit to practising in a rural community upon graduation.

Though RhPAP is still working on program details with partners, the funding is a good starting point for attracting rural doctors, says local physician Gavin Parker, who chairs the RhPAP board of directors.

“One of the benefits of this type of program is it does identify people that are keen and interested in rural areas that may not have thought about rural medicine along the way,” Dr. Parker says.

“For those who aren’t as certain of their career path, the evidence is clear that early exposure to rural opportunities is key,” agrees fellow physician Sam Myhr, president of AMA’s rural medicine section.

“I am pleased that the government is looking to invest in the future of rural health care, and I hope to see collaboration with physicians to design a program that will succeed in helping the right candidates find their long-term homes in rural medicine.”

The strong appeal to practise rural medicine, Dr. Myhr continues, is the opportunity to work in pretty much every aspect of medicine, helping develop what she calls a “jack-of-all trades” skill set in health care.

The advantages of living in a smaller, tight-knit community might also be overlooked by med students until they are exposed to them, Dr. Parker adds. His own experience attending med school at the University of Alberta started with the intent of becoming a neurosurgeon in an urban centre, but a rural recruitment event offered by RhPAP helped change his plans.

“The rural doctors just all seemed so happy,” he says. “The neurosurgeons were kind of miserable compared to these guys. I thought, ‘These are the kind of people I’d like to be like.’ ”

While other actions would help increase the number of rural doctors, such as allowing universities to increase the number of seats in residency programs, Dr. Parker is hopeful the funding will provide an incentive to students, especially those from a rural background that may be deterred from practising medicine because of the high costs.

Dr. Kristy Penner from Crowsnest Medical Clinic says introducing high school students to the idea of a career in rural medicine is an effective long-term strategy for increasing the number of small-town physicians.

The pre-medical program at Selkirk College in Castlegar, B.C., for example, helps attract students to rural practices even before starting med school.

“You’re getting to a point that maybe it’s too late by the time a person is already applying to medical school,” Dr. Penner says. “I think sometimes people do make their decision by the time they’re in medical school, and definitely by the time they’re in that residency program training. But these pre-medical programs, I think, are super helpful in the high school outreach.”

Advocacy of providing a similar outreach program in Alberta is currently underway, she adds, with the goal of Medicine Hat College eventually offering pre-medical programming.

For the time being, Dr. Penner is optimistic the program will also help the area retain students and doctors in their residencies, as providing continuity for patients is important in rural communities.

“We continue to train rural students and physicians, so we look forward to an initiative like this,” she says.

According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, Alberta had about 800 rural physicians in 2019. While the $6 million return of service agreement program is expected to help increase that number, a noticeable difference in practising rural physicians is not expected for the next five years or so.

Sean Oliver, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Shootin' the Breeze