Red tape pushes Hamilton's foreign-trained doctors to the sidelines amid COVID-19

Nearly 900 foreign-trained doctors across Canada have joined a Facebook group, created by a Hamilton-based researcher, asking to be placed on the frontlines of the pandemic.

'Its just not been very easy,' to get certified doctor says

Ayesha Badiuzzaman (left) and Ali Mahdi (right) say foreign-trained doctors need to be used on the frontlines of Canada's COVID-19 fight. (Suppled by Ayesha Badiuzzaman)

Ayesha Badiuzzaman is ready, willing and able to save lives but, she says, red tape is keeping her on the sidelines as more Canadians die from COVID-19. 

Badiuzzaman, working as a researcher in Hamilton, was trained as a doctor in Bahrain.

Her fight to obtain a temporary medical licence to aid in Canada's fight against COVID-19 hasn't been easy. 

In March, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) began issuing 30-day licences, the Supervised Short Duration Certificate, to allow certain people in the medical field to help out during the pandemic. 

Badiuzzaman says the biggest challenge is securing a placement within a hospital — a requirement for the licence. 

"It's understandable that hospitals are very busy at this time," Badiuzzaman said. "Even though a lot of us are trying to get through to the hospitals, it's just not been very easy." 

With so many frontline workers falling ill, foreign-trained doctors are an untapped resource that could help the health-care system stay afloat during the impending surge of patients. 

But as of Tuesday, the CPSO had only issued 12 licenses. 

A CBC News investigation released early April found that 9.6 per cent or 229 of Ontario's 2,392 positive COVID-19 cases at the time were physicians, nurses, paramedics, personal support workers, long-term care home staff and members of other health-care professions. 

"If you take a physician out of the workforce, then all of a sudden the other physicians who are already working hard... now have to work that much harder," said Ontario Medical Association president Dr. Sohail Gandhi. 

"That's why it's important to expeditiously bring in other trained healthcare professionals…"

On April 7, the provincial government launched a Health Workforce Matching Portal to help former and international healthcare providers or medical students connect with institutions and offer additional support. 

CPSO spokesperson Shae Greenfield said the portal might will make it easier for foreign-trained doctors to connect with hospitals. 

The Ontario Hospital Association has not responded to a request for comment. 

'Anyone' with medical knowledge is needed 

Even in the best of times, Gandhi said, Canada doesn't have enough physicians to care for its population. 

As it stands, there are 2.4 physicians per 1,000 people. In comparison, Gandhi said, Italy, which has been "devastated" by COVID-19, has four doctors per 1,000. 

"In this pandemic we are at the point where anyone who has...medical knowledge would be necessary right now, certainly over the next four to six weeks." 

And yet, Gandhi said he has heard that foreign-trained medical professionals are struggling to meet the criteria to get a license.

In these cases, Gandhi said, including physician assistants or "extenders" might be beneficial as it would allow those who can't get certified to operate under the guidance of a registered doctor. 

Vanig Garabedian came to Canada as a Syrian refugee in 2015. Now a Canadian citizen, he wants to bring his years of experience as a physician to the front lines in the fight against COVID-19. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

On March 23, Badiuzzaman, who practised medicine in Bahrain and Qatar, and foreign-trained doctor Ali Mahdi created a Facebook group, International Medical Graduates in Canada responding against COVID-19. 

"Governments all around the world had to enact emergency legislation to have more hands on deck when it (comes) to providing health care to those afflicted with the COVID crisis," Badiuzzaman said. 

"We were wondering what the Canadian situation would be... we felt (it's) our moral obligation to help as doctors." 

The group, which has 892 members as of Tuesday, is advocating for foreign-trained doctors across Canada to be more involved on the frontlines.   

Applicant requirements for the CPSO certificate include: 

  • Graduated from medical school in Canada, the U.S. or a school that was, at the time of graduation, listed in the World Directory of Medical Schools.

  • Practised medicine, graduated medical school or passed Medical Council of Canada exams within the last two years.

  • Secured a spot working in a hospital, psychiatric facility or for a Crown agency.

  • Found a physician prepared to act as their supervisor.

After guidelines for the short-term licence were released, the CPSO was "inundated" with health care professionals wanting to get certified, Greenfield said. 

Despite that, the college has only given out a dozen licences. Greenfield couldn't specify how many, if any, of the licences administered were to foreign-trained doctors. 

So few have been given out at this time as not at all applicants meet the criteria, Greenfield said. 

Badiuzzaman's Facebook group now has more than 800 members. (Supplied by Ayesha Badiuzzaman)

"We continue to work with those additional candidates to help them determine whether they meet the qualifications for the program under the Medicine Act," Greenfield said in an emailed statement. 

On April 3, the Canadian government launched a national COVID-19 volunteer recruitment campaign that will have people assist with case tracking and contact tracing, case data collection and reporting, and the health system surge capacity.


Jennifer La Grassa


Jennifer La Grassa is a reporter/editor for CBC Windsor. Email: jennifer.lagrassa@cbc.ca


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