Foreign-trained doctors on the sidelines as COVID strains hospitals

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As Alberta grapples with health care worker fatigue and rural doctor shortages, Marjan Abtahi watches in frustration.


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The woman, who left Iran in 2010 in search of more opportunities to put her medical skills to good use, says she constantly faces obstacles in her hopes of helping alleviate these problems.

“I want to go out and serve the community and do what I’m good at,” said Abtahi, 37, who came to Canada in 2015.

“I studied for seven to eight years to become a doctor (in Iran) but now I don’t have the opportunity. … People are burning out and we have the skills to help.

For now, the Calgarian is part of a health and wellness team that advises on pandemic care and works as a translator.

Other international medical graduates in Alberta serve as contact tracers while too many others, their advocates say, are engaged in non-medical work that leaves them underemployed.


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Abtahi said the biggest hurdle she faced was securing one of the coveted but limited numbers of medical residency spots needed for international graduates to finish and move into full practice.

“It’s very difficult…I’ve applied for 20 programs and haven’t had any interviews.”

According to the latest figures from Alberta Health, there are 6,092 active cases of COVID-19 among health care workers in the province, although the province did not say how many of them were absent from work.

Absences among those workers have become difficult as the number of hospitalizations due to the virus has increased this month, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said earlier this week.

And in recent months, there has been a steady stream of rural hospitals reporting gaps in doctor coverage or bed closures due to staffing shortages.


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Abtahi said the province should soften financial and professional incentives to attract more practitioners to rural areas, adding that she would work in those settings as a doctor if given the opportunity.

Staff care for a COVID-19 patient on a ventilator in a Calgary intensive care unit in 2021.
Staff care for a COVID-19 patient on a ventilator in a Calgary intensive care unit in 2021. Photo by Alberta Health Services

Graduates of Canadian schools, including international students who attended them, have a much wider choice of medical residencies than people like her, she noted.

“I didn’t think it would be easy but I thought it would be fairer,” Abtahi said.

“I ask myself ‘should I continue on this path or should I think of something else?’ ”

The growing frustration of foreign-trained practitioners in Alberta is causing some of them to give up pursuing their dreams here, while others are moving to other countries and provinces where there are fewer barriers, said Deidre Lake, Executive Director of Alberta International Medical Graduates. Association.


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“It breaks my heart that people don’t recognize this as a resource – what message are we sending to these highly trained people when we don’t even use them to do nasal swabs (COVID-19 test) in a pharmacy? ” said Lake, whose organization has about 1,000 members from 69 countries.

Currently, 250 international medical graduates have applied for 40 residency spots split between the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta, she said.

There are an estimated 5,000 international medical graduates in Canada.

Some of those graduates, Lake said, gave up their pursuit of a medical practice and turned to nursing.

Another hurdle, she said, is the need to redo licensing exams at the same time as residencies, which can take years and cost thousands of dollars.


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But recently, Alberta Health Services reached out to his organization to ask him to provide clinical associates, physicians who can support licensed physicians in his northern zone, Lake said.

“It’s the next best thing after being a licensed doctor,” she said, adding that streamlining the process faced by international medical graduates should be explored further.

Irish medical regulators, for their part, have scrapped application fees for newcomer medical practitioners seeking to enter the system.

Alberta is the most welcoming province for international medical graduates in the country, with 34.3% of its medical workforce coming from this source, compared to a national average of 26.2%, said the Alberta Health spokesperson Chris Bourdeau.


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“Recent IMG growth is also much higher than average,” Bourdeau said in an email.

“We appreciate these graduates and will continue to count on them.

He said the licensing body of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta is stepping up its qualification process for such graduates as well as recruiting for rural areas.

In an email, Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons spokesperson Melissa Campbell said, “We understand how important community health care is to Albertans and the challenges that can arise when recruiting doctors.”

There is currently no waiting list for the college’s fitness to practice assessment, which is part of a six-month qualification process overseen by a college-certified physician, it said. she adds.

“We have a number of family medicine practitioners in rural Alberta who are available to act as assessors and ensure candidates can begin their assessment as they complete their registration process,” Campbell said.

Before beginning the qualification process, most international graduates must complete several courses to orient them to medical practices in Alberta, she also said.

Twitter: @BillKaufmannjrn



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