Territory moves to fix doctor shortage

Faced with the prospect of losing three more doctors, the Yukon government moved to extended the time period for the provisional medical licences it grants to foreign-trained doctors.

Faced with the prospect of losing three more doctors, the Yukon government moved to extended the time period for the provisional medical licences it grants to foreign-trained doctors.

“I am pleased and impressed with the backbone the government has shown and the determination and effort in doing this. It’s not an easy task that they did,” said Dr. Shahid Syed, one of the foreign-trained doctors whose medical licence was about to expire.

Only a few days ago, Dr. Syed was making plans to leave the territory.

“Me, my family, my children, we love Yukon. We don’t want to move,” he said at the time. “My children ask me why we have to go and it’s very hard for me to explain it to them why we need to move.”

Under the Yukon’s Medical Profession Act, foreign-trained doctors are granted a temporary five-year medical licence. To get a full licence, the physician has to pass a test administered by the Canadian College of Family Physicians.

The six-hour written exam, which also has an oral component, tests, among other things, a physician’s ability to interact with patients and manage disease.

The test is given to every graduate of a Canadian medical school specializing in family medicine in their final year of residency.

“It’s really geared toward a new graduate who hasn’t done any work,” said Dr. Syed. “You kind of question what extra information you might get from it.”

In many provinces the CCFP designation is not required, he said.

In Alberta, foreign-trained doctors are granted a full licence after six years practising medicine, provided there are no serious incidents or complaints.

It used to be that way in the Yukon, too. It was only in 2006 that the CCFP designation became mandatory.

At that time, all foreign-trained doctors practising in the territory were granted an exemption.

The fact that exemptions were granted raises a question in Dr. Syed’s mind. “Are we being fair here? Do they need to do this?”

The test is another way to make sure doctors meet a minimum standard, said Dr. Bruce Beaton, chair of the Yukon Medical Council.

“I agree with the current legislation that every new practitioner has to ultimately demonstrate equivalency to every single Canadian graduate that gets a licence. The question to be answered is: How long do you give a limited-licence practitioner to demonstrate that?”

A few years ago, the Canadian Council of Family Physicians recognized that their test wasn’t appropriate for practising doctors and created an alternative route for those physicians to get certification.

However, to be eligible for that alternative test, the physician had to be practising for five years.

Because the temporary Yukon medical licences are limited to five years, physicians like Dr. Syed found themselves in a catch-22.

By extending the length of the medical licences for foreign-trained doctors, from five to seven years, the government hopes to remedy that situation and solve some of the other unanticipated problems that were created when the CCFP designation became mandatory.

“What we found was that many of the family practitioners without certification would just move to another province that has the exact same regulations that we do, where they can work there for the additional four or five years,” said Doug Graham, the Yukon’s minister of health.

For the doctors who were working in the Yukon, taking time away from their practice to prepare for the test was onerous.

“One of these fellows has a practice of 2,000 patients and there simply isn’t time for time to study for these exams,” said Graham.

Some have an even higher patient load.

A year and a half ago, Dr. Syed’s clinic lost four doctors and finding another doctor to take on those patients proved impossible. So he ended up taking them on himself.

Dr. Syed now has a roster of 6,000 to 8,000 regular patients, with several thousand more who are registered as walk-ins.

“I was the only single doctor there taking the load of four other doctors, so that was a huge amount of work and there was no way I could close the clinic to prepare for the exam for a couple of months,” he said. “I kind of put the patient care first and my own self on the back burner.”

He recently took the test, but the results won’t be in until December.

With the changes that the government made to the Medical Profession Act, Dr. Syed as well as two other doctors, one in Whitehorse and another in Watson Lake, will still be able to practise in the interim.

The Yukon still needs several more doctors, so the government is actively trying to recruit more.

In addition to providing perks like medical student loan reimbursement, grants for office renovations and continuing education, medical practice insurance and moving expenses, the government is also considering a person to work specifically on recruiting doctors to the territory.

The government hasn’t issued new licences to foreign-trained doctors in two years. It recently committed to restarting the program.

In the last six months the Yukon gained seven new doctors.

The total number of doctors residing in the territory stands at 72, but not all of them are practicing.

Neither the government nor the Yukon Medical Council track how many of those doctors actually see patients.

There also aren’t any firm numbers of how many Yukoners are without family doctor.

It’s a big problem, but the recent actions by the Yukon government demonstrate that the government is sincere in its desire to solve it, said Dr. Syed.

“We all need to support the government in realizing this goal and work together and I think it will benefit all the residents of Yukon,” he said. “Now it’s up to the medical community and the community itself to work together to provide the best care.

“All doctors need to see if there’s a way to increase their patient load and provide family doctor care to everyone in the Yukon.”

Contact Josh Kerr at joshk@yukon-news.com