British Columbia·SITUATION CRITICAL

Promised SFU medical school still years from opening despite doctor shortage

In 2020, the NDP made an election pledge to create the province's second medical faculty, with its first cohort of students starting next year. Patients and advocates are asking whether it's on track.

NDP pledged in 2020 to have first cohort of students starting next year at Surrey campus

A person walks across the street near a campus building with the letters 'SFU' on it.
Simon Fraser University is still in the planning process for a promised medical school at its Surrey campus. The NDP pledged the faculty would take its first students next year to ease the province's doctor shortage. (CBC)

This story is part of Situation Critical, a series from CBC British Columbia reporting on the barriers people in this province face in accessing timely and appropriate health care.

A stylized phrase reading 'SITUATION CRITICAL', made to read like a red heartbeat monitor.

When Sharman Minus had a heart attack in early 2020, she hadn't had a family doctor in two years.

The 69-year-old Victoria retiree still doesn't and as a result waits hours in emergency rooms or on telehealth lines  explaining her medical history again and again, hoping to get help for chronic symptoms or to adjust prescriptions.

"I lost my last doctor, he was retiring and he couldn't get anyone to take over his practice," said Minus, a volunteer with B.C. Health Care Matters, a new group that advocates for timely access to a family doctor for every B.C. resident. "The advantage of having a family doctor is golden ... They're the foundation of all of Canada's health care."

Nearly a million British Columbians are without a family doctor. 

In October 2020, the New Democrats made an election pledge to create a second medical faculty in an effort to address the doctor shortage in the province. According to the announcement at the time, the first cohort of students was to start at Simon Fraser University's Surrey campus next year. 

The province currently has only one such school — the University of B.C.'s Faculty of Medicine — which graduates about 174 family doctors each year. 

SFU says it is still in the public consultation phase and hasn't yet filed a business plan with the province.

Once the plan is submitted and approved, SFU says it would still be three to four years before students could walk through the doors. It would still need to hire a dean and faculty, design the curriculum to meet qualification standards and attract students. 

Even after the first cohort begins their studies, it would still be at least six years before they qualify as doctors. 

"We have no sign the medical school is in the budget," said B.C. Liberal health critic Shirley Bond. "There needs to be specific and concrete action including keeping their promise."

Adrian Dix gestures among colleagues on the floor of the legislature.
B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix tells the legislature on March 29 that an SFU medical school will be launched within the NDP's four-year term. (Legislative Assembly of B.C.)

Health professionals across the province say staff shortages can be traced to a slew of retirements, long-awaited vacation days, and nurses and doctors leaving the profession after two years of the pandemic.

Adrian Dix, B.C.'s health minister, said more family doctors are needed, but it's just one part of the solution to ongoing shortages.

"It will require a new medical school in British Columbia," he said in the legislature on March 29. "It's a commitment in the government's four-year plan, and we intend to meet that commitment during this mandate."

The province says planning is in progress and it's provided $1.5 million toward the school's development.

Hailey Gallant, a white woman with black hair, poses in front of a fence.
Surrey resident Hailey Gallant, 18, stands near her home. She has been unable to find a family doctor since being diagnosed with a thyroid condition three years ago. (Baneet Braich/CBC)

Another patient acutely feeling the doctor shortage crunch is Hailey Gallant. The Surrey resident says a new medical school would "help the community have more access to medical resources."

The 18-year-old has lived with a thyroid condition for three years, as well as mental health issues, and like Minus, tried without luck to find a family doctor. Many walk-in clinics have told her they are full, too, she said.

"I need extra blood work done that I can't get without a family doctor, so it's very infuriating," she said. "There needs to be more resources, more doctors."

But Victoria's Minus said it will take so long to graduate a class of doctors at a new medical school that it's not an immediate or perfect fix to the current crisis. 

Additionally, she said it doesn't address why so many physicians are leaving their practices in B.C., and why recruitment has been difficult.

"It's all very well graduating people, but you have to attract them somehow," she said. "The reason a lot of doctors are coming out of university now and not choosing family practice is the fact that they're sort of undervalued and underpaid."

David May, president of the B.C. College of Family Physicians, said changes are needed to retain existing family doctors and also attract new students to the field. The root of the problem, he said, is in how B.C. pays doctors and working conditions.

"Family physicians can't afford to run a practice where they are having to employ their own staff and pay overhead," he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David P. Ball

Journalist

David P. Ball is a multimedia journalist with CBC News in Vancouver. He has previously reported for the Toronto Star, Agence France-Presse, and The Tyee, and has won awards from the Canadian Association of Journalists and Jack Webster Foundation. You can send story tips or ideas to david.ball@cbc.ca, or contact him on Twitter.

With files from Baneet Braich and Cory Correia

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now