Scrapping rural doctor grants could mean brain drain, medical students say

Medical students in Manitoba are disappointed the Progressive Conservative government is scrapping a $4.2-million program that provided financial incentives for students to work in rural areas of province.

On Wednesday, CBC learned Premier Brian Pallister's government will eliminate the Medical Student/Resident Financial Assistance Program which was introduced under the previous NDP government.

First established in 2001 and revamped in 2010, the assistance scheme offered $12,000 to medical students for each of their years in medical school, plus additional grants if they established a practice in the province.

In return, students were required to work in an under-serviced part of the province for six months for each year they received the grant.

"The program design offered substantial incentives for medical students to pursue training and careers in rural Manitoba," said Gurmeet Kaur Sohi, president of the Manitoba Medical Students' Association in a written statement Thursday.

Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen said previously that his government saw no evidence the incentives worked to draw doctors, or retain them in the province.

But medical students in Manitoba think otherwise.

"Without the incentive, many medical students may now be inclined to explore rural practice in other provinces," Sohi said.

Goertzen defended his government's decision Wednesday, saying the province consulted physicians prior to cancelling the program, but Sohi believes her membership should have been a part of those talks.

"Surveying established physicians regarding their values is not an accurate indicator for the potential success of retention programs aimed at medical learners," she said.

"Medical students and residents often carry large amounts of debt … Financial incentives play a large role in retaining medical learners in Manitoba, both in Winnipeg and especially in under-serviced rural areas."

Goertzen said Wednesday the province will announce a new program to attract doctors to Manitoba sometime within the next year.

Medical students hope to be part of any future programs which may replace the rural doctors assistance program, said Sohi.

"As the future generation of physicians, we are key stakeholders and as such would advocate to be included in the discussions around this new strategy."