Medical student summer program won't be cut, Flemming says

Health Minister Ted Flemming has decided not to cancel a summer work placement program for first- and second-year medical students just hours after coming under fire by the New Brunswick Medical Society for plans to cut the program.

Health minister changes position after coming under fire from New Brunswick Medical Society

Health Minister Ted Flemming has decided not to cancel a summer work placement program for first- and second-year medical students.

The decision came Tuesday night, just hours after Flemming came under fire by the New Brunswick Medical Society for plans to cut the program on such short notice.

Department spokeswoman Tracey Burkhart said: "Given the lateness of the decision for the students, and the placement process was already underway, [the minister's] going to let the program go ahead for this year."

In an email to students, obtained by CBC News, the Department of Health had cited "fiscal constraints" in eliminating the Summer Preceptorship Program, which pays medical students just over minimum wage to shadow doctors and other health care providers in a number of different settings across the province during the summer months.

"Over the course of the coming year, the Department of Health will be undergoing a complete review of our past recruitment and retention programs targeted at medical students, residents and physicians," the email sent to dozens of student applicants on March 28 stated.

The program costs $200,000, said Burkhardt.

The department still plans to review the summer program, along with other recruitment and retention initiatives, but it will go ahead, she said.

Earlier on Tuesday, the president of the New Brunswick Medical Society had called the decision to cut the program "tremendously short-sighted."

Cutting the program, which is designed to encourage medical students to stay in New Brunswick after they graduate, will hurt the province's ability to recruit new young doctors, Dr. Robert Desjardins stated in a release.

"What message does that send?" Desjardins asked.

The medical society supports periodic reviews of programs to ensure the government is getting the "best bang for buck," said Desjardins.

"What we don’t support, one month from the summer academic break, is abandoning the dozens of medical students who want to learn more about practising in New Brunswick this summer," he said.

An average of just under 100 medical students participated in the program annually in recent years, the society says.

Philippe Tremblay, a medical student with the Dalhousie University program in Saint John, was among them last summer, spending time in a hospital, at a primary care centre and also doing medical research.

"It definitely gives you an excellent opportunity to see what practising in New Brunswick is like, and that's definitely what sold me on wanting to practise in New Brunswick when I finish," Tremblay said.

The medical society said the timing of the government's decision to cut the program would have left many students without a back-up plan for the summer.

Savings questioned

"I’m not sure how paying medical students in New Brunswick minimum wage to gain hands on medical experience right here in New Brunswick isn’t good value for taxpayer dollars," said Desjardins.

"How much money would they spend on government recruiters trying to fix the mess? Probably a lot more than minimum wage," he said.

In an emailed statement, Health Minister Ted Flemming had said cutting the summer program, along with other recruitment and incentive programs, would save $2.5 million of the $20 million he needs to cut from the department's budget.

But the Medical Society said the estimated 100 students in the program are paid only $11 per hour.

"It is unfortunate that the Medical Society continues to refuse to discuss how we can work together to achieve the $20 million savings we need this year," Flemming said, continuing a war of words started last week following cuts to Medicare in the 2013-14 provincial budget.

"In the absence of their input, the department is moving forward with what tools we have to meet our budget goals," he said.

But NDP Leader Dominic Cardy argued suspending the summer program would make it more difficult to get students to practise medicine in New Brunswick in the future.

"Losing this program is going to mean losing another big recruitment for some of our smaller towns. So it'll have a significant impact," he said.

The Alward government announced it is freezing spending in the Department of Health in a bid to fight the provincial deficit, which is expected to hit nearly $479 million.

The health budget will remain at $2.58 billion, marking the first time in recent memory it has seen zero growth, Finance Minister Blaine Higgs said.

Meanwhile, federal health transfers to New Brunswick will increase by $35 million this year.