Calgary

Lift barriers to accredit foreign-educated doctors quickly, report's author urges

The number of doctors available to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic could be increased if the government or regulatory bodies would cut red tape so foreign-educated doctors could get accredited more quickly, according to a report released Monday.

Hundreds of doctors arrive in Alberta annually but it takes years for many to be licensed

Doctors test hospital staff for COVID-19 in New York. The state's governor issued an executive order allowing foreign-educated, unlicenced medical professionals, to work in hospitals during the pandemic. The author of a new report says lifting barriers to allow immigrant doctors to practice is a good idea. (Misha Friedman/Getty Images)

The number of doctors available to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic could be increased if the government or regulatory bodies would cut red tape so foreign-educated doctors could get accredited more quickly, according to a report released Monday.

"There's quite a demand for health care here in Calgary and quite a supply of foreign-born medical professionals but we can't make that supply meet demand," said report author Robert Falconer, a research associate at the University of Calgary's school of public policy.

He described the situation as "brain waste."

COVID-19 is influencing a number of bodies around the world to consider what barriers to accreditation are really necessary.- Robert Falconer, report author.

In 2018, 300 immigrant physicians arrived in Alberta, according to the report. 

Falconer said in Calgary, there are 33 family doctors with patient openings for every 100,000 people.

He said that number could be bumped by about a 15 per cent increase — if doctors who have immigrated to the city could be accredited more quickly.

Lifting the barriers to accreditation for immigrant doctors is something a number of regions around the world are considering or implementing due to the global novel coronavirus pandemic.

"COVID-19 is influencing a number of bodies around the world to consider what barriers to accreditation are really necessary," he said.

New York allows foreign grads to practice medicine

Last week, the governor of New York issued an executive order to allow graduates of foreign medical schools who aren't licensed to practise medicine in the United States to care for patients in hospitals if they have completed at least one year of graduate medical education. 

The U.K. is also eyeing ways to expedite the accreditation of qualified health-care professionals who are refugees.

And more than 12,000 people have signed a petition to allow international medical graduates in Canada to join front-line workers in the fight against COVID-19.

Doctors coming to Alberta have to pass through four distinct medical regulatory bodies, Falconer said.

Those include jumping through hoops like passing an English proficiency test — which they already would have needed to pass to immigrate to Canada. It takes some doctors up to 10 years to complete the requirements, and at a significant personal financial cost as well, Falconer said.

'A missed opportunity'

"I think it's just a missed opportunity if we're not looking to really get them qualified and practising as soon as possible. I recognize the need to certify their credentials, I just think there's probably a faster way we could do this," he said.

Falconer said there are two ways barriers to accreditation could be removed — through the accreditation body waiving fees and expediting applications, or through a government order to change the rules in an emergency situation.

CBC News reached out to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta, which regulates medical practices in the province, to ask if faster accreditation is something that it's considering.

A spokesperson for the college said any physicians who aren't currently licensed to practise medicine in Alberta need to apply in the usual manner, but it is looking at ways to redeploy licensed doctors, and bring in students and retirees to supplement its numbers.

"To provide additional medical support to Albertans, [the college] is supporting AHS's collection of information from all currently licensed physicians to determine who could be redeployed," the spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

The college said it's also working with universities to identify senior post-graduates who are eligible to be deployed to work in acute care settings, and that it's reaching out to recently retired physicians who may want to reinstate their permit to practise. 

A spokesperson for Alberta's health minister referred CBC News to the college's statement when asked if easing accreditation requirements for foreign medical graduates was something the province would consider.

Falconer said he started working on this report in December, but realized the need was even greater as more and more COVID-19 cases began to appear.

He said those doctors, especially the dozens who arrive as refugees each year, have important knowledge that could be put to use.

"These refugees … would be used to operating and providing patient care under those crisis-like conditions," he said.

"And while thankfully we're not quite at that level yet here in Calgary, I think if there was an intense amount of pressure put on the health-care system, not only would their medical experience be valuable but also their experience as refugees could be valuable in terms of being able to operate maybe with a shortage of supplies or just under high-intensity pressure."

Canada is on the lower end of OECD countries when it comes to its ratio of doctors to citizens, with 2.8 doctors for every 1,000 people as of 2018. Only seven countries rank lower, including the United States and Mexico. Austria tops the list, with 5.2 doctors per 1,000 people.

About the Author

Sarah Rieger

Reporter

Sarah Rieger joined CBC Calgary as an online journalist in 2017. You can reach her by email at sarah.rieger@cbc.ca.

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