Ontario to clear way for more foreign-trained MDs

Maria Babbage

The province will introduce changes within weeks that will break down regulatory barriers and allow more foreign-trained doctors to work in Ontario, Health Minister George Smitherman said today.

The legislation will move on a government report that outlines ways to increase the number of foreign-trained doctors practising in Ontario to improve access to health care, he said.

“That story about taxi drivers and pizza drivers, we’re a bit hooked on telling that story as if that’s the plight of every foreign-trained doctor,” Smitherman said.

“But I think it’s really important to acknowledge that in Ontario, 25 per cent of all the doctors that we have are foreign-trained. So we’re doing a better job.”

Smitherman is mulling recommendations that include putting doctors who are already practising in countries with a comparable health-care system directly into practice and creating a transitional licence that would permit a doctor to practice with supervision while completing their training.

The licence could help specialists whose talents aren’t always recognized because the focus is on a “broader array of things that they would have learned years and years ago,” he said.

“This is about transitioning those specialists into opportunities without having to go through residency, and they would be supervised by existing physicians in those environments,” Smitherman said.

The bill will be introduced before the legislature breaks for the summer, but likely won’t be passed until it resumes in the fall, he said.

In the meantime, the government will work with the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario – which regulates the profession – to draft the new regulations, Smitherman said.

College registrar Dr. Rocco Gerace said the college already issues restricted certificates, which allow doctors to work while under the supervision of another physician.

“We have a host of doctors out there who have gone through a process recognizing their ability and, over a period of time, are under some remote supervision just to make sure someone’s looking in on them,” he said.

Of the 3,279 certificates issued by the college last year, 1,403 went to international medical graduates and 1,155 went to Ontario grads.

“Whatever we do, we have to be assured that we do it in a way that maintains the standard that doesn’t put the public at risk,” Gerace said.

Dr. Haibo Xu, a family doctor who received his medical degree in Beijing, came to Canada in 1999 and is only now heading out to start up his own practice in Dunnville, Ont., a small rural community near Niagara Falls. The 32-year-old plans to start working in July once he has completed his residency training.

“The frustrating part of the application was the number of examinations you have to take,” he said.

The province has since eliminated some of those repetitive examinations to simplify the process, he added.

What the province needs is more residency spots, which isn’t addressed in the report, said Progressive Conservative health critic Elizabeth Witmer.

“Great at announcements, but they never have a plan of action, they never have any time lines and you never know when they’re going to achieve and really make a difference in the lives of any people,” she said.

The Liberals say they increased the number of residency training position to 200 from 90 in 2004.

Currently, more than 5,000 foreign-trained doctors are practising in Ontario and 630 others are in residency training, according to the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care.

Yet 850,000 people in the province still don’t have a family doctor, according to a recent report by the Ontario Medical Association.

The province is short about 2,500 doctors about 2,600 physicians currently working in the province are over the age of 65, the report noted. If those physicians decide to retire, Ontario would lose about 10 per cent of its family doctors and about 13 per cent of its specialists.

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