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Conservative Leader Stephen Harper answers reporters' questions at a news conference in Victoria on Wednesday. ((Tom Hanson/Canadian Press))

A re-elected Conservative government would establish a $5-million fund to encourage Canadian doctors practising abroad to return to Canada, Stephen Harper pledged on Wednesday.

Harper, campaigning in British Columbia a day after releasing his party's platform for the Oct. 14 federal election, said the Tories would also set up a pilot project with the provinces and territories to explore ways to recruit and retain nurses.

He added the government would also fund 50 new residents each year in teaching hospitals across the country to bolster the number of physicians available to treat Canadians.

"Responsible governments don't promise quick fixes for health-care systems as broad and diverse as Canada's," Harper told supporters in Victoria.

"Responsible governments take achievable steps to deliver real improvements that make the systems better for all of us."

The Conservatives' proposal is the latest from the federal campaigns targeting Canada's shortage of doctors and nurses.

Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion promised to spend $1.32 billion on health-care improvements if elected to government, vowing to create a catastrophic drug coverage plan and invest millions of dollars to boost the numbers of doctors and nurses.

Earlier in the campaign, NDP Leader Jack Layton pledged his party, if elected to form a government, would forgive the student loans of new family doctors who remain in general practice at least 10 years.

The New Democrats' proposed health-care plan calls for $1 billion over five years to increase the number of medical students across the country by 1,200 annually and the number of nursing students by 6,000 a year.

An estimated 4.1 million Canadians age 12 and older are without a family doctor, either because they can't find one or haven't looked, according to a 2007 Statistics Canada report.