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New medical training school unveiled at U of L

Posted on April 18, 2024 by admin

By Al Beeber
Southern Alberta Newspapers

Earlier this month, the Alberta government formally announced the investment of $224.8 million to train more physicians in rural areas of the province.

A big part of that money is being invested in the University of Lethbridge for a new rural medical education program training centre, one of two that will be established in the province.

The U of L will be partnering with the University of Calgary on the centre here while the University of Alberta will partner with Northwestern Polytechnic to develop one in Grand Prairie.

Capital funding of $43.2 million is being invested in the Lethbridge centre while a total of $55.6 million will be used to support operating expenses for the centre here and in Grand Prairie.

An additional $126 million will support the overall physician training expansion in Alberta. 

Two ministries – Health and Advanced Education – are jointly responsible for the training of physicians in Alberta.

The formal announcement was made in the Science Commons building at the U of L with numerous dignitaries in attendance including Minister of Advanced Education Rajan Sawhney, Lethbridge East MLA and Minister of Affordability and Utilities Nathan Neudorf, U of L president and vice-chancellor Digvir Jayas, University of Calgary president Edward McCauley, Northwestern Polytechnic president Vanessa Sheane and University of Alberta dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry Brenda Hemmelgam. Parliamentary secretary for rural health Martin Long was also present.

Sawhney, in a  phone interview with Southern Alberta Newspapers before the event, called the centres the first steps to help solve the shortage of physicians in rural Alberta.

“It’s going to be a game changer for rural physician availability,” said Sawhney before heading to Lethbridge.

“It’s a critical part of our multi-pronged strategy,” said Sawhney. 

The provincial and nation-wide physician shortage requires “all hands on deck and all kinds of strategies to come together,” said the minister.

“One of the critical strategies was to finally introduce a distributed education model which other provinces have, the minister added.

“It’s great news for Lethbridge and surrounding area.”

Initially, beginning in the fall of 2025 there will be 10 seats per year at the U of L centre which will ramp up to 30 and there will be another 30 for Grande Prairie.

“It’s going to take a year or two to ramp up to that but it’s pretty significant,” said Sawhney.

The minister said there is a lot of interest in the training schools.

From cities and city planners to students and educational institutions, “there’s a tremendous amount of excitement because again it’s going to be a game changer for Lethbridge, and Grande Prairie and surrounding communities because they will actually have doctors that are going to train in those settings and they’re going to encourage people who live around those centres to actually apply for medical school,” said the minister.

“Students who are from rural communities and train in rural communities tend to stay there,” said Sawhney.

The schools will have spinoff benefits including making it more affordable for students to get medical training closer to home.

“In this era of affordability issues, being able to be close to home, being able to save money and to be able to afford an education like this, these are all factors that have to be considered.

“But overall I think just having the availability in the next couple of years of regionally trained physicians that can serve in the community to make sure that we eventually meet that goal where everybody has a family doctor, that is so critically important as part of our health care system. That is why there’s a lot of excitement about this announcement.”

Both training centres will be delivering an entire under-graduate medical education program and will provide hands-on learning experiences in the rural communities surrounding them, says the province.

Students will gain practical medical experience serving rural patients while training alongside other health professionals.

Once established, the centres will provide primary care here and in Grande Prairie with each general practitioner in the teaching clinics providing care for about 1,200 patients.

They will also operate after regular hours to reduce congestion in emergency departments which the province says will add much needed primary care capacity.

A shortage of health care workers exists across North America and each jurisdiction is competing to attract them, said the minister.

“Somebody who doesn’t have a family doctor and lives in a rural area is in a difficult situation and they’re right to be angry, they’re right to be upset” and sometimes it’s natural for people to point fingers, she added.

Health care workers were burned out after the pandemic and government saw them leaving the profession en masse and “as government our role is to try to as quickly as possible implement policy that will try to alleviate that exit. So that’s why we’re creating additional medical seats,” she said.

The province also has the Alberta Advantage immigration program “that provides definite defined pathways for health care workers to get nominations to stay in Alberta. We’re also looking at international medical graduates, people who have been here for awhile who are foreign trained. We’ve got an additional 30 seats open for them as well as part of this funding,” said the minister.

“There’s a lot of things happening,” she added.

At the announcement, U of L president and vice chancellor Digvir Jayas stated “this is a historic day. Minister, thank you to you and your government, for investing  and improving the access to health care for all Albertans.”

“Accessing essential medical care, particularly to family physicians, is a formidable challenge for families. Many individuals in this room have worked extremely hard attracting physicians to our region, and have realized some important successes because they know access to Alberta’s health-care system is necessary for individual and community health, as well as Alberta’s economic health.”

“While I know this important work will continue, the creation of a rural medical education program learning centre at the University of Lethbridge, in partnership with the University of Calgary, will make an incredible long-term difference in increasing the number of physicians practicing outside of Alberta’s major centres. Recruit local, train local, practice local.”

Neudorf said the announcement is something that unites people.

“There are many things in today’s society that divide us, politics not least among them, but today we have something that has really united us. It doesn’t matter what political leanings are, it doesn’t matter where you’re from, it doesn’t matter what community you represent, this training facility is tremendous.

“This has stretched over many years, and it will make a lasting difference for generations to come, and I couldn’t be more proud of Lethbridge; I couldn’t be more proud of Alberta for coming together and working together and committing to making Alberta a better place to live.”

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