OPINION | Medical students stand with doctors in opposition to UCP health-care changes

Alberta communities with limited access to health-care services are likely going to suffer more, unless the government engages the future physicians of our province as allies.

Many students are choosing to leave the province to pursue further training

The unilaterally imposed changes to physician services in Alberta have been met with much anger and frustration from doctors across the province. Medical students are unhappy, too. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion from Moiz Hafeez and Evan Allarie, both students at the Cumming School of Medicine, and Dr. Hasan Abdullah, a recent graduate.

Following the passage of Bill 21 in the Alberta Legislature late last year, the UCP government has unilaterally imposed drastic changes to physician services in our province.

These changes were imposed after abruptly leaving good faith contract negotiations with Alberta's physicians and tearing up the contract between government and physicians, represented by their representative body, the Alberta Medical Association (AMA).

These unilateral changes, the first of their kind in Canada, have been met with much anger and frustration from both generalist and specialist physicians across the province.

The newly implemented billing changes and cuts imposed by the province disproportionately affect rural physicians, with many being left with no choice but to withdraw crucial services such as obstetrical care and emergency room coverage.

The lack of a long-term master agreement between the physicians and the province has also created an uncertain environment for physicians as they look to the future, and has led to rural physicians leaving their practices.

Students affected, too

But these changes do not just affect current physicians in Alberta.

Medical trainees across the province find this incredibly disconcerting, with many choosing to leave the province to pursue further training and establish themselves in future careers.

A recent student-led study was done at the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta to understand medical students' sentiments regarding the governmental changes.

The survey ran for three weeks in early March and received a greater than 36 per cent response from Alberta's 1,100-plus medical students.

Over 96 per cent of the survey respondents indicated that the unilateral changes being made by the UCP government are inappropriate given the current context. 

Over 79 per cent indicated that they were likely to move outside of Alberta to pursue further medical training. Over 91 per cent of these students said that it is unlikely that they will return to Alberta to practice medicine given the proposed changes in regards to Bill 21 and the refusal of the current government to engage in negotiations with the AMA.

Changes hardest on rural areas

The imposed changes are even more detrimental for rural and remote health-care services.

AMA told the government repeatedly that the proposed framework would cause havoc in rural Alberta, which it did, forcing the government to walk back some of the implemented changes.

One of the most concerning statistics from the study showed that over 37 per cent of medical students who grew up in rural Alberta were now unlikely to pursue a family medicine or rural family medicine training program, given the uncertainty created by the government's proposed restrictions on where new doctors can and cannot practise in Alberta.

This means many Alberta communities with limited access to health-care services are likely going to suffer more, unless the government engages the future physicians of our province as allies in helping to bridge service gaps.

Physicians in our province work passionately to cater to the health-care needs of Albertans every day. This is more evident than ever right now, when we are in the middle of a global pandemic.

We understand the unprecedented economic challenges our province is facing. The Alberta Medical Association has recognized this and presented many ideas to curb spending and improve the system, without compromising care to Albertans.

Allies, not adversaries

To achieve this, however, it is crucial for the government to work together with Alberta's physicians as allies, not adversaries.

In a recent letter, physician leaders from across the province declared unequivocal support for the Alberta Medical Association as sole representative for Alberta physicians. As medical trainees, we stand in solidarity with our physician colleagues and the AMA. 

It is important, now more than ever, for the government to win back the trust of Alberta's physicians. If not, the province risks not only compromising patient care, but also precipitating a brain-drain in graduating and new physicians.

There is potential for a fair deal that addresses health-care costs and sustainability, while ensuring quality health care for every Albertan. However, that needs to come through a fact and data-oriented process, not an ideologically driven one.

Albertans deserve better. Minister Shandro, it is time to get back to the negotiating table.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Moiz Hafeez is a 4th year MD/MSc student at the Cumming School of Medicine and the past student representative on the Alberta Medical Association’s Board of Directors. Evan Allarie is a 2nd year medical student at the Cumming School of Medicine with a strong interest in social and public policy. Dr. Hasan Abdullah is a recent graduate of the University of Calgary Cumming School Of Medicine and an in-coming Rural Family Medicine resident. Dr. Abdullah has also previously served as a student representative on the board of the Alberta College of Family Physicians (ACFP).


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