Hoping to alleviate a doctor shortage, Saskatchewan has embarked on a major hiring binge in India.

Health officials recently went to India where they spoke to around 440 doctors interested in working here.

The officials plan to review their qualifications and go back next June to offer contracts to those who meet standards to practice in the province. Saskatchewan Health Minister Dustin Duncan is hoping that India may do for doctors what the Philippines did for the recruitment of nurses.

Doctors by-the-numbers:

  • India graduates an estimated 40,000 doctors every year. The provincial government says that is more than can possibly work in India, although that view is not shared by everyone.
  • Saskatchewan currently has more than 100 vacant doctor positions, mostly in rural areas. Most vacancies are for general practitioners or family physicians.
  • Health officials hope the trip to India — for doctors —  will have similar success as an earlier recruitment effort in the Philippines — for nurses. About 400 new nurses hired in Saskatchewan in recent years are from the Philippines. (458 job offers were made to nurses to come to Saskatchewan.)

The government hired hundreds of nurses from the Philippines to work here, following a recruitment effort begun a few years ago. Duncan said Saskatchewan needs more doctors, claiming India trains more than it needs.

"These professionals are looking to work outside their country and many are willing to practise in our rural and remote settings," Duncan said Thursday.

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Saskatchewan health officials plan to return to India in June to follow up a recent recruitment initiative with job offers. (CBC)

However, an academic with expertise on global health issues says Saskatchewan's overseas recruitment work is problematic.

Ronald Labonté, from the University of Ottawa, says India needs the doctors it trains.

"It definitely has a severe shortage," Labonté told CBC News Thursday. He noted that because of other issues with India's health care system, the country is not making full use of the doctors it trains.

"Countries should not actively recruit in other countries that are facing a critical shortage," Labonté added.

As the Canada Research Chair in Globalization and Health Equity, Labonté has collected data on population sizes and targets for physician numbers.

He says India has fewer doctors, per capita, than the minimum recommended by the World Health Organization.

He views Saskatchewan's recruitment effort as using a foreign country that is struggling, to subsidize the province's health care system.

Ronald Labonté's research on physician numbers:

  • Canada: 2.4 physicians per 1,000 residents 
  • India:  0.65 physicians per 1,000 residents

"It's a perverse subsidy," Labonté said. "We're actually economically benefitting at the cost of ... some of the poorest citizens who don't have access to effective public health care."

Officials from Saskatchewan's health ministry told CBC News the trip to India was approved by that country's government and recruiters stuck to big cities.

But Labonté is unconvinced.

"It's a bit dishonest or a bit disingenuous in terms of saying we're only taking the excess off of this country," he said. "That's simply not the case."

With files from CBC's Geoff Leo and Stefani Langenegger