Alberta to add 120 medical school seats, 100 medical residency spots in three years

Alberta will expand the number of medical residency seats to accommodate the growing ranks of graduating medical students, the province’s health minister said on Monday.

Expansion to doctor training to cost $133 million in three years

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A medical student practices on a model at the University of Alberta. The Alberta government is expanding the number of training seats for medical students and residents. (John Ulan/Canadian Press)

Alberta will expand the number of medical residency seats by about 25 per cent to accommodate the growing ranks of graduating medical students, the province's health minister said on Monday.

The province will also expand the number of residency training spaces reserved for international medical graduates up to 70 from the current 30, Health Minister Jason Copping said.

The promise follows a pledge in last month's provincial budget to create 120 new medical school seats in the next three years, split evenly between the universities of Alberta and Calgary. Once they graduate from medical school, doctors-in-training complete a post-graduate residency to specialize in areas such as family medicine, psychiatry or cardiology, for example.

"In an ideal world we would have done it earlier," Copping said of the expansions at a news conference at the University of Alberta. "Because we have a shortage now. But the best time to start when you haven't already started, is now."

Dr. Brenda Hemmelgarn, the University of Alberta dean of medicine and dentistry, said the province's $113-million commitment over three years for medical residencies will help to create more opportunities for residents to study in smaller centres. Right now, Alberta programs accept about 400 residents per year.

Addressing a shortage of rural doctors is one of the institution's most pressing missions, Hemmelgarn said.

"Today we're investing in the future of each and every citizen in the province and making our vision of equitable health care a reality," Hemmelgarn said.

The government has already announced plans to explore whether the universities can also train medical students in Grande Prairie and Lethbridge.

University of Calgary dean of medicine Dr. Todd Anderson said recruiting doctors to teach trainees is a challenge. He hopes the additional funding will allow more creative ways to pay physicians so they can set aside time to teach.

It will cost about $20 million over three years to add the medical school seats. Right now, there are about 312 seats in the province. Once complete, medical school spaces in the province will grow by 38 per cent.

Many Albertans have expressed frustration trying to find a family doctor in recent years.

More expansions for nursing programs

Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides also reiterated a budget promise to create another 1,800 training seats in the next three years to educate nurses, paramedics and health-care aides.

Those new efforts will cost $30 million. The seats would be in addition to the 1,338 more nursing seats, 1,090 more health-care aides and 46 more paramedic training spaces the government has already pledged to fund. That was part of a 2022 commitment to add 10,000 post-secondary training seats across the province to keep up with population growth and industry demand.

Also funded will be more spaces in "bridging programs," creating more than 620 spaces for foreign-trained nurses to be credentialed to work in Alberta.

Nicolaides said the limited number of health-care training spots in the province could be leading to a brain drain to other jurisdictions. People are more likely to work where they're trained, he said.

Nicolaides said more than 3,500 people who applied to Alberta post-secondary training programs in health fields last year were turned away, even though they met entry standards. About 2,000 of those people were applying to nursing, where applicants now need high school grades in the high 80s or low 90s to meet admission requirements.

NDP health critic David Shepherd said in an interview the United Conservative Party government should have acted sooner.

Should the NDP form government after the May 29 provincial election, the party would stick to the new seat commitments and possibly expand them, Shepherd said.

"And we would take additional steps to ensure that Alberta remains an attractive jurisdiction for those health care workers when they graduate," he said.

Those steps would include funding health care to keep pace with inflation and the province's population growth and cultivating a positive relationship with health-care workers, he said.

Shepherd said some residency matches in Alberta went unfilled last year, and blamed it on the government's approach to health-care workers.


Janet French

Provincial affairs reporter

Janet French covers the Alberta Legislature for CBC Edmonton. She previously spent 15 years working at newspapers, including the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca.