UPEI creating medical school 'co-degree' in partnership with Memorial University

The University of Prince Edward Island announced Friday that it is creating a new faculty of medicine, in partnership with Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Faculty will provide 20 seats for Island students, including at least one for an Indigenous student

UPEI announced Friday that it is creating a new faculty of medicine, in partnership with St. John's-based Memorial University. (Tracy Lightfoot/CBC)

The University of Prince Edward Island announced Friday that it is creating a new faculty of medicine, in partnership with Memorial University in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Students will earn a Doctor of Medicine "co-degree," according to a news conference held at the Charlottetown university Friday.

"It's going to be the first of its kind for a number of reasons," UPEI president and vice-chancellor Alaa Abd-El-Aziz said. "UPEI believes that we really need to focus on family medicine, rural medicine, Indigenous health, which is something the Faculty of Medicine at Memorial is well known for. But we want our university to be part of the development of the curriculum, to be part of the delivery.

"It's my understanding that this will be the first co-degree in medicine of its kind in Canada."

The new faculty will initially provide 20 seats for Island residents annually, including at least one seat for an Indigenous student, beginning in September 2023.

"The first four years we will focus on Island students and then after that we will look at the expansion of the program and attracting Canadian and international students to come," Alaa Abd-El-Aziz said.

UPEI says the partnership with Memorial will give the Island institution immediate access to a medical curriculum. Both universities entered discussions to develop the program in 2020, but Premier Dennis King says it's been in the works for a couple of years.

"We've been back and forth with university and Memorial for quite while to get to here today," King said. "I think it lays a good foundation for a better healthcare future for P.E.I.

"I know it's not a magic bullet to solve everything that we're dealing with today and everything we're going to face tomorrow. But it's a significant announcement that I think will change the direction and lay a good foundation for a better future."

The program will put an emphasis on producing generalists and family doctors. 

It says Memorial's 50 years of experience in generalist training, rural medicine and its Indigenous Health Initiative make it a "good fit" for the partnership.

Woman uses a medical instrument to check the eyesight of a patient.
Gail Macartney, who is also a nurse practitioner, demonstrates a concussion checkup in the UPEI Health and Wellness Centre in this 2019 file photo. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC)

The Faculty of Medicine will collaborate with other UPEI health-related programs, such as the faculties of nursing, science and veterinary medicine.

"All of this together will allow us to think of healthcare in a different way and attract more resources and more funding to do research here in P.E.I.," Abd-El-Aziz said.

The program will be fully taught in P.E.I.

Nursing school, wellness centre expanding

UPEI also announced it's expanding its Faculty of Nursing and Health and Wellness Centre.

The number of annual nursing seats available at the school through its Bachelor of Nursing program and its accelerated equivalent will increase by 18.

King said the expansion, as well as the new faculty, will help increase the number of physicians and nurses working in the province, which currently are in short supply.

"It's relatively easier to get people here at the beginning. It becomes more of a challenge to retain them here if the system isn't functioning the way it should be, if they're not given the opportunity to practice to the full scope of their interest," he said.

"I think, as I say, that the work in terms of recruitment and retention maybe only intensifies because we have this opportunity looking into the future. But I mean, that remains a big challenge for us."

Almost 20,000 people on the Island do not have a family doctor.

"It makes a significant difference," said Dr. Trevor Jain, who is the director of the university's paramedicine program. "The evidence shows that where people train there, where they're most comfortable, they know the system, they know the logistics, they know the personalities, they know the health authority and they're comfortable in that system.

"We have a real opportunity not only to, you know, educate our own Island physicians, but also retain and attract other unique academic health care providers."

UPEI says the expanded Health and Wellness Centre will provide services to up to 10,000 patients.

Funding for the new faculty and the announced expansions is estimated to be $129 million over the first six years. The province will be providing most of the money, with UPEI set to raise additional funds.

$50.7 million of that funding will be spent on infrastructure and $66 million will go toward operating costs for the new faculty.

A new building will house classrooms and offices for the nursing and medicine faculty as well as the wellness centre expansion.

With files from Jessica Doria-Brown