Thunder Bay·In Depth

Lakehead and Northern Ontario School of Medicine at loggerheads over move to make medical school independent

With the Northern Ontario School of Medicine potentially gaining independent university status after provincial legislation was tabled last week, academic and political leaders in the north are in disagreement over what it means for the future of the medical school.

Ontario government has proposed legislation that would make the medical school an independent university

The Northern Ontario School of Medicine may become Canada's first free-standing medical school university if a bill tabled by the Ontario government passes. (Northern Ontario School of Medicine)

With the Northern Ontario School of Medicine possibly gaining independent university status after provincial legislation was tabled last week, academic and political leaders in the north are in disagreement over what it means for the future of the medical school.

The province proposed a bill that would establish the medical school, which was created in 2005 as a joint initiative with campuses at both Laurentian and Lakehead universities, as an independent institution with the authority to grant degrees.

NOSM is already the only Canadian medical school established as a stand-alone, not-for-profit corporation, but Lakehead University's president and vice-chancellor Moira McPherson has concerns about the province for making "such a significant decision" without consultation and warned the move could have consequences for healthcare in the northwest, if the bill were to pass.

In response, the medical school's dean, president and chief executive officer Dr. Sarita Verma disagreed, saying McPherson was providing "misinformation, creating fear and panic," and added "there is no chance" the school closes its Thunder Bay campus.

Dr. Verma added the "misinformation" is harming the school's reputation.

With the bill tabled by the provincial government and open for public consultation, here's what we know about the move:

Ontario calls the bill 'exceptionally amazing news'

Ross Romano, the provincial minister of colleges and universities, tabled the Northern Ontario School of Medicine University Act on April 15, which would make the medical school an independent, degree-granting institution, if passed.

Minister Romano said the decision to table the bill had nothing to do with the financial woes of Laurentian University, which is currently undergoing major financial restructuring after filing for bankruptcy in February.

Rather, the move to make NOSM independent will "free it of a great deal of additional burden, some red tape and regulation that is duplicitous and unnecessary," the minister told CBC News in an interview.

Ontario Minister of Colleges and Universities Ross Romano said the decision to grant independent university status to the Northern Ontario School of Medicine had nothing to do with Laurentian University's financial woes, but was to acknowledge the achievements of the school. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

He said the institution "already largely operates independently," and he expects partnerships with Lakehead and Laurentian to continue.

"Now the degree will say Northern Ontario School of Medicine, and they won't have to go through those extra burdensome administrative and governance procedures of the other institutions."

Romano described the bill as "exceptionally amazing news for northern Ontario," saying the move was simply part of "the evolution of a university" and would provide NOSM with the "flexibility to be more nimble to deliver healthcare, health human resources and training across all of the region."

Leaders in the northwest are upset about lack of consultation

In a letter to Minister Romano dated April 15, Lakehead University president and vice chair of NOSM's board of directors Moira McPherson wrote, "we are astounded that there was no consultation whatsoever with Lakehead University."

McPherson added, "the collaborative model with the two Universities has created significant benefits and cost-savings for NOSM … any severance of this partnership will result in significant costs for the government and consequently for taxpayers, with fewer funds going to train doctors and more being spent on administration."

Lakehead University's president Moira McPherson has expressed deep concerns about the province's move "to sever" NOSM's relationship with the university. (Lakehead University/Supplied)

At the end of her letter, McPherson asked a series of questions to Minister Romano, including questions about the impacts of the decision on the healthcare system in northwestern Ontario and on faculty and staff at both Lakehead and NOSM.

A number of other political leaders in the northwest have also come out in support of Lakehead University.

During its Monday night meeting, Thunder Bay's city council passed a motion supporting the position of Lakehead's president that the decision to sever NOSM's relationship with the only university in northwestern Ontario "is not in the best interests of our University, NOSM, Thunder Bay, or Northwestern Ontario."

We hope to have a much deeper presence in Thunder Bay in building residency programs with the hospital, but also spreading across the Northwest.- Dr. Sarita Verma, president, dean and CEO, Northern Ontario School of Medicine

The president of the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association also waded into the debate, specifically about the government's lack of consultation with a letter that said: "having NOSM associated with Lakehead University in Thunder Bay is important to regional and Indigenous jurisdictions and our economy."

And during question period at Queen's Park on Tuesday morning, NDP MPP Michael Mantha said, "the Ford government should not be playing games with the Northern Ontario School of Medicine. Too much is at stake for Doug Ford to be making backroom deals on the future of northern health care."

The campaign to maintain NOSM's relationship with Lakehead University picked up late Tuesday afternoon, with McPherson sending an email to all Lakehead alumni encouraging them to send emails and tweets to the Ontario government demanding medical education stay at Lakehead.

'No chance' NOSM is leaving the northwest: School president

Dr. Sarita Verma, the president, dean and chief executive officer of NOSM, told CBC's Superior Morning "there is no intention to leave Thunder Bay or Sudbury. There is every intention to build on those relationships."

She added, "we hope to have a much deeper presence in Thunder Bay in building residency programs with the hospital, but also spreading across the northwest, where there is a dire need for family doctors, specialists and sub-specialists."

Discussions have already been underway for some time with the province about the expansion of the medical school, Dr. Verma said, adding the government felt now was the time "to move to the point where we could grant our own degrees."

She added that NOSM is "one of the great jewels on the crown right now in northern Ontario," but cautioned the "misinformation [is] creating fear and panic."

Dr. Sarita Verma, the dean and CEO of the Northern Ontario School of Medicine, is reassuring northern Ontario residents that the school is committed to maintaining its campuses in both Thunder Bay and Sudbury, and addressing the healthcare needs of northern Ontario. (Markus Schwabe/CBC)

"They are putting that accreditation at risk and they're putting in severe jeopardy relationships with Indigenous communities, Francophone communities, rural, remote communities and partners."

The school also took the step of sending an email to all NOSM learners, staff and full-time faculty reassuring them that "the only significant changes from the legislation, if passed by the Government, is that NOSM would be able to register its own students, collect tuition fees and confer degrees."

The email noted that the legislative change would still enable the medical school to receive and administer research grants.

The comment period for the proposed Northern Ontario School of Medicine Act closes May 17.

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