As Saudi medical trainees ordered home, Canada prepares for potential impact on hospitals

As a diplomatic showdown escalates, Saudi Arabia has told about 800 medical residents and fellows they must leave Canada and do their training elsewhere.

About 800 trainee doctors caught in diplomatic spat between Canada and Saudi Arabia

The Medical Sciences Building at the University of Toronto. The university is working with its partner teaching hospitals to determine the potential impact of losing more than 200 doctors from Saudi Arabia. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)

Health officials across Canada were trying to determine Wednesday the potential impact if about 800 medical residents and fellows from Saudi Arabia suddenly leave the country next month.

The planned recall of that group comes after Saudi Arabia suspended diplomatic relations with Canada on Sunday in response to a tweet from Global Affairs Canada that criticized the Saudis for the arrest of female social activists.

The diplomatic row has escalated with a series of measures taken by the Saudis that include recalling students — including medical students and residents — to Saudi Arabia.

Saudi medical students make up the vast majority of foreign medical trainees in Canada, according to the Ottawa-based Saudi Arabian Cultural Bureau.

The bureau, part of the Saudi Education Ministry, which is in charge of placing Saudi medical students, has persuaded the kingdom to give trainees a "grace period" until Sept. 1 to return home, said Dr. Salvatore Spadafora, vice-dean of post-MD education at the University of Toronto's faculty of medicine.

In Toronto, that means 216 Saudi doctors out of the 3,600 residents and fellows in their system — the biggest in Canada.

"So 216 people is not insignificant, but we've got a pretty big network," Spadafora said in an interview.

"We're in the process now of really sitting down with our hospital partners, site by site, and program by program, and figuring out what the impact will be if Sept. 1, these folks aren't around."

In Montreal, 225 out of the 1,250 residents at the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) and the Jewish General Hospital are from Saudi Arabia.

MUHC spokesperson Gilda Salomone said hospital authorities are monitoring events.

"The situation is still fluid, it's evolving," Salomone said. "We're evaluating the situation and the impact it has on our programs."

McGill specifically had 327 students from Saudi Arabia enrolled during the 2017-18 academic year.

'Definitely concerned'

A spokesperson for Resident Doctors of Canada, which represents about 9,000 residents across the country, warned on its website that suspended scholarships for Saudi students studying here and their forced departure from Canada could have very negative consequences.

Todd Coopee said the institution is keeping close tabs on the issue and the type of impact these actions will have on medical students, residents, and the system's ability to provide quality and timely care.

"While we're definitely concerned about the potential implications, we feel that at present we do not have enough verified information to comment," the communications manager said in an email.

"We also understand that discussions are ongoing among the various parties involved; we are hopeful that some kind of resolution can be found."

While the Saudi government says students whose education is paid for by the kingdom can head elsewhere to continue their studies, Spadafora said there will be an impact on their academic careers.

"From what I have gathered ... initially it's a bit of a shock, it's a bit of a sudden announcement and I think there's a lot of people who are stressed and, quite frankly, they're sad this has happened," Spadafora said.

"They're worried about their future and there's a bit of uncertainty there."

He said health officials are pleased to have until the end of the month, adding there is "hopeful optimism there's going to be a resolution before then."

But Spadafora admits it's largely out of their hands.

"This is not a matter that's at the level of a university, or the bureau of a lowly vice-dean," he said. "This is really at the upper levels of the governments of both countries."