Less than 25 per cent of the first class that graduated from a provincial program designed to foster doctors for northern B.C. have actually opened practices there, CBC News has learned.

The Northern Medical Program, run by the University of British Columbia, benefits from provincial funding that amounts to about $90,000 annually per student. Its goal is to train doctors in the north so they'll stay after graduation and serve those communities.

Students accepted into the program are not obligated to practise family medicine in northern B.C., where doctors are desperately needed. The province has invested $100 million in the program since it began in 2004.

Out of the first class of 24 graduates in 2008, only 12 chose to enter family medicine, and among those only five have started a rural family practice in BC. Prince George got two of the graduates, and Fort St. John, Mackenzie and Trail each got one.

Two other graduates are doing locums in the north but have yet to commit to rural medicine.

Mike Farnworth, the B.C. NDP's health critic, says those numbers are disappointing.

'You have to hope and you have to wait.' — Dr. Joe Finkler, University of British Columbia

"What we have to do is address some of those reasons as to why they are not staying in northern B.C. and I think putting some expectations on kids who are benefiting from this taxpayer investment," he said.

Farnworth wonders why the medical students aren't asked to sign contracts committing to practise medicine in northern B.C.

Dr. Joe Finkler, associate dean of admissions for the UBC's medical school, said the program can't force students to stay in the north.

"It's analogous to me like growing a garden," he said. "You have to plant the seed and fertilize the ground. You have to irrigate. You have to hope and you have to wait."

'Life always changes'

Ryan Leblanc, a first-year student in the program, likes the lack of a requirement to commit to the north.

"I feel a bit of a calling to return to the area I grew up in, knowing there is a shortage that exists," he said. "But I don't think there's any pressure to go into a specific field."

First-year student Sarah Pickett said it's unfair to ask doctors to commit to a rural career six years before they graduate.

"I don't think that is fair because life always changes," she said. "You know someone says when they sign up, 'You know I really want to stay in the north,' and then they meet someone in the program and get married and start a family."

Program officials point out that many students have gone on to specialize and may still decide to practise in rural B.C. someday.

UBC has not yet surveyed the latest graduates who finished their residency, so it's unclear if the success rate is improving or deteriorating.