Alberta Health is reviewing a program designed to recruit doctors to rural Alberta and keep them there.

The review will explore whether there are redundancies in the Rural Physician Action Plan (RPAP), established in 1991, and ensure "an alignment with Alberta's rural health system needs and outcomes," according to a letter from deputy minister Carl Amrhein. 

"It's at a natural point for review, it's the end of a current funding cycle," said Health Minister Sarah Hoffman. "So I think the responsible thing for any government to do is when you're at the end of a funding cycle go look at the desired outcomes, the actual outcomes and determine if you need to make any changes to the program."

The review doesn't sit well with some politicians in rural Alberta, including Leanne Beaupre, the Reeve of the County of Grande Prairie.

"I was quite surprised," Beaupre told Alberta@Noon. "I didn't anticipate that Alberta Health would be taking a look at the program because it has been so successful."

Recruitment already difficult

Beaupre said it has been a challenge to attract physicians to northern Alberta and the RPAP program was embraced "wholeheartedly" in the region. 

"It was another tool that we were able to let people know about rural and remote Alberta and try and bring them to areas that aren't the traditional urban centres that a lot of doctors would like to go to," she said. 

Leanne Beaupre

Leanne Beaupre is the Reeve of the County of Grande Prairie. (County of Grande Prairie)

Current grant funding for the program was due to run out at the end of the month, but has been extended until the end of September. 

Hoffman said the government is committed to ensuring proper healthcare in rural Alberta, but wants to ensure it's getting a good return on its approximately $10-million investment.

Possible redundancies

The two faculties of medicine at the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary have expressed concern that the RPAP's role in education is redundant and possibly even jeopardizes their accreditation.

In addition to its work in recruiting physicians, the RPAP also provides training, recognition and support for rural health care providers. That's where things get bogged down in bureaucracy, the faculties say.

"We believe having the Rural Physician Action Plan act as a third party between the funder of education (Alberta Health) and the accountable provider of medical education (the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry), does not add value," said Dr. Fraser Brenneis, the vice dean of Education for the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Alberta.

But Brenneis said he supports the RPAP's other roles. 

"Clearly, many rural communities have come to value the support they have received from the Rural Physician Action Plan in the recruitment and retention of physicians to their community," he said.

"We very much value this role RPAP plays in recruitment and retention and we would be happy to see it continue forward in that important role."

When asked if the universities could step into some of the roles currently fulfilled by RPAP, Hoffman said physicians in communities is the priority. 

"I think in some ways [the universities are] trying to work as a partner right now, and that's fantastic," she said. 

"Certainly looking at the variety of different programs, what's returning the best bang for the buck and what's getting those experts to the right communities is certainly a priority for us. Feedback from the universities is always of interest."

Beaupre said the council has written to Alberta Health, asking the department to review the possible cuts to the program. 

"I think they need to take a bigger look at the program and what it actually delivers," she said.

Hoffman said the review will take place over the "next couple of months."


With files from Alberta@Noon

With files from Drew Anderson