PEI

Would a P.E.I. medical school help keep doctors on the Island? It worked in northern Ontario

The number of Islanders without a family doctor continues to rise and as a solution many in P.E.I.’s political sphere have suggested adding a medical faculty at UPEI.

'Medical schools are not easy commodities to produce'

All of the candidates in the Egmont riding in the federal election backed the idea of setting up a medical school on P.E.I. including the winner in that riding, Liberal Bobby Morrissey. (sasirin pamai/Shutterstock)

The number of Islanders without a family doctor continues to rise and as a solution many in P.E.I.'s political sphere have suggested adding a medical faculty at UPEI.

During the provincial election in April, NDP candidate Herb Dickieson sent letters to P.E.I. media, P.E.I. NDP Leader Joe Byrne, who ran in the provincial and federal elections, also supported the idea. Even federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh vowed to end health-care wait times on the Island by adding the faculty.

It isn't just a single-party suggestion either. All of the candidates in the Egmont riding in the federal election backed the idea of setting up a medical school on P.E.I. including the winner in that riding, Liberal Bobby Morrissey.

In September, CBC News reported that there were nearly 15,000 people on the patient registry — almost 10 per cent of P.E.I.'s population. The number of people on the registry now sits at 15,215.

The desperate need for doctors in rural areas is nothing new and the problem plagued northern Ontario until it started its own medical school 15 years ago, said Dr. Sarita Verma, dean of the Northern Ontario School of Medicine.

"Medical schools are not easy commodities to produce, but you know for northern Ontario the return on investment has been great," Verma said.

We needed to have a school that was in the north, by the north and for the north.— Dr. Sarita Verma, Northern Ontario School of Medicine

The school is located in both Thunder Bay and Sudbury and serves as the medical school of both Lakehead and Laurentian universities. Verma said the retention rates have been pretty good with about a third of the doctors staying in the north.

She said in the 1980s, medical schools in Canada were cut back because it was believed there was an oversupply of physicians.

"In the mid-1990s it was pretty clear that was probably not a good idea. And by the early 2000s most parts of Canada were in a crisis," Verma said.

Public pressure

The school was established after residents put pressure on government to provide more family doctors, she said.

"That was because there was really good evidence to show that if people came from these communities, came from particularly high schools in your neighbourhood, you were more likely to go back to practice in that neighbourhood," Verma said.

"We needed to have a school that was in the north, by the north and for the north."

The Ontario government provided $102.7 million for the creation of the school, a spokesperson with the office of Ontario's minister of health said in an email. 

The spokesperson said in 2018-19, Ontario's Ministry of Health provided $32.4 million to the school, though they also said the province's Ministry of Colleges and Universities would also have provided funding.

Dr. Sarita Verma, dean of the Northern Ontario School of Medicine, says the idea of establishing a medical school at UPEI is a good one because the Island has a lot of the same issues communities in northern Ontario were facing. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

Verma said the idea of a medical school on P.E.I. is a good one because the Island faces a lot of the same issues northern Ontario was dealing with.

There were other medical schools near the area, but they were not providing an adequate number of doctors to the north. Verma said P.E.I. is in a similar situation with Dalhousie University and Memorial University both providing training for doctors, but those trained often don't choose to settle on the Island.

Adding a medical school in the area helped northern Ontario retain doctors and a medical school on P.E.I. could have the same effect, she said.

Now, Thunder Bay, Sudbury, Timmins, North Bay and Sault Ste. Marie, "no longer have a shortage of family doctors," Verma said. 

"We've filled our city."

Verma said so far 665 doctors have graduated from the medical school.

Employment opportunity

She also pointed out there is an added benefit to creating a medical school on P.E.I.

Verma said doctors create employment opportunities in pharmacies and other areas, which contributes to the economy.

More P.E.I. news

With files from Island Morning

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