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Loss of rural doctors feared

It may not be a story that is rooted in agriculture, but it certainly pertains to Rural Canada, where plans to allow workers free movement across the country could create shortages of physicians in small towns and villages.


September 19, 2008
By canada.com/Calgary Herald

September 19, 2008

Alberta's medical regulator is sounding the alarm over a new plan to allow the free movement of workers across Canada, saying the changes will drain physicians from small towns.


The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta said Thursday a "labour mobility" agreement that premiers signed in July will affect special licences that bind internationally educated physicians to work in rural locations.

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The labour mobility agreement, which comes into effect in April, allows professionals trained in one province to do their job in any other.


"In Alberta, it may empty physicians from rural and remote parts of the province," says Trevor Theman, registrar of the college, who said the impact on smaller provinces could be even more dramatic.


"The idea of free labour mobility is a good principle, but it's not the only (consideration)."


Saskatchewan's medical regulatory body shares similar concerns, arguing the changes would allow international physicians who are now staffing rural clinics under three-year contracts to move to warmer climates or bigger cities.


"We believe it may dry up health care in rural Saskat-chewan," said Bryan Salte, associate registrar of the college.


Officials with the Alberta government, however, say the concerns are not warranted.


"The new mobility rules will not affect our ability in Alberta to . . . make arrangements with physicians to practise in rural settings as a condition of their employment," said Alberta Health spokesman Howard May.


The debate comes as small towns and northern regions of Alberta struggle to recruit and retain physicians.


The problems were evident at a rural physician job fair Thursday, where health regions were attempting to recruit University of Calgary medical students.


Dr. Odell Olson, with East Central Health, said towns often have little choice but to hire international physicians.


"You can't get Canadians to even think about (going to a small town)," Olson said.


In an effort to address the small-town physician shortage, regulators in Alberta and some other provinces will allow international doctors, who would not otherwise qualify, to practise here in rural areas where the need is greatest.


The physician groups say the labour mobility agreement could remove those geographic restrictions.


Theman said he is also concerned about the move to a single standard for licensing international physicians.


He said provinces like Newfoundland, which has had trouble attracting physicians, do not have as stringent requirements for licensing foreign physicians as some other jurisdictions.


This allows those provinces to compete for doctors. Creating a single standard would remove that competitive edge, he said.