The Sunday Magazine

Foreign-trained medics just want to 'serve the community' during crisis, says doctor

Thousands of foreign-trained doctors in Canada have been unable to practise medicine in this country because of roadblocks to being licenced. Iraqi-born, Ukrainian-trained Dr. Ali Mahdi has started an online petition asking that foreign-trained doctors be allowed to volunteer in hospitals at a time when Canada's health-care system needs "all hands on deck" to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Dr. Ali Mahdi is from a family of 5 foreign-trained medics. None has found work in his field in Canada

Dr. Ali Mahdi is an international medical graduate. He was born in Iraq and received his medical training in Ukraine. He has not yet obtained his medical licence in Canada. (Submitted by Dr. Ali Mahdi)

As the COVID-19 crisis continues, there are growing calls for provinces to enlist the help of more foreign-trained doctors — known as international medical graduates (IMGs) — to help ease the burden on the health-care system. 

Thousands of these doctors are currently working in a variety of other jobs in Canada — as taxi drivers, store clerks, office managers — because they have not been able to get their credentials to practise medicine in the country.

Some IMGs recently launched an online petition, offering to help in Canadian hospitals during the pandemic.

"Given the prevailing and unprecedented circumstances ... we are coming forward to willingly volunteer, hands-on, without expecting to be paid, so we can alleviate front-line workers during this time of crisis," an excerpt from the petition reads.

Dr. Ali Mahdi is an IMG who helped launch the petition. He was born in Iraq and received his medical training in Ukraine. He has not yet obtained his medical licence in Canada.

"You can imagine [that] sitting out on the sideline as doctors, while this plays out on the world stage, can be so frustrating," he told Michael Enright, host of The Sunday Edition.

Mahdi's petition has the support of more than 900 foreign-trained physicians and more than 17,000 signatures of support from the general public.

"This committee has come together almost overnight out of the desire to help people," he said.

Challenges finding residency

Mahdi is from a family of five foreign-trained medics. "It's like we have our own mini hospital at home," he joked.

He and one of his brothers are general practitioners; another is a pediatrician; yet another is a dentist; and his father is a radiologist.

None of them has been able to find work in his field in Canada.

This committee has come together almost overnight out of the desire to help people.- Dr. Ali Mahdi

The biggest obstacle facing international medical graduates is landing a residency, the spots for which are very limited and highly competitive, Mahdi says.

Many foreign-trained doctors in Canada spend thousands of dollars to go through all the necessary training and licensing exams, only to find themselves unable to find a residency position.

"We have the same exams as the Canadian doctors. In addition to that, most of us have previous clinical and medical experience. But we don't get matched into the health-care system because we are assigned a different pathway than the [Canadian medical graduates]," Mahdi explained.

"The licence exam takes up to two years and is around $10,000 minimum," Mahdi said. "You'd need to have a survival job in order to pay for that. Some of us used our own hard-earned money, took out lines of credit, in order to fund our education and exams. But at the end of the day, you're still facing this issue, which is the residency spots."

Despite their medical expertise, Mahdi's brothers are all working in other jobs. One is a real estate office manager. Another is a supervisor in a security company. And the others are in what Mahdi calls survival jobs.

"You can imagine it's something kind of depressing," Mahdi said.

We have doctors with experience in epidemic situations … doctors who worked in Asia, Africa and the Middle East during SARS, MERS and Ebola.- Dr. Ali Mahdi

There have been signs in some provinces that the door may be opening somewhat for foreign-trained doctors to help.

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia announced earlier this month that it was looking to change its bylaws to allow IMGs to work under the direction of attending physicians — as long as they have completed at least two years of post-graduate training and the first part of their qualifying exams.

In Ontario, IMGs who've passed their exams can apply for a supervised 30-day Ontario licence during the pandemic, to help out at public hospitals, psychiatric facilities and Crown agencies.

Need for 'more streamlined process,' says Mahdi

"The 30-day licence in Ontario is a great initiative … and many of us have applied to hospitals," Mahdi said. "But one of the requirements here … is having a letter from the hospital, and finding a physician to agree to be your supervisor. Most of us have sent hundreds of emails to hospitals and doctors, but we haven't been getting responses.

"This is [to be] expected. Hospitals and physicians now are so busy in fighting the pandemic. So I would say I think having a more streamlined process can be beneficial for both the hospitals and the IMGs," he added.

Mahdi emphasized that IMGs in Canada include doctors from every single field of expertise.

"We have doctors with experience in epidemic situations … doctors who worked in Asia, Africa and the Middle East during SARS, MERS and Ebola," he said.

"Many of us, myself included, have significant clinical experience under our belt. We are able to work under pressure… I believe we can be an asset to the Canadian health system during this critical time.

"At the end of the day, we are all Canadians. We want to do what each and every Canadian wants to do: serve the community."

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.

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