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Internationally Trained Doctors Sidelined as Pandemic Strikes

Licensing process is too slow and includes unreasonable barriers, say doctors.

Moira Wyton 20 Apr 2020TheTyee.ca

Moira Wyton is The Tyee’s health reporter. Follow her @moirawyton or reach her here. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

B.C.’s health-care system is missing out on the skills of hundreds of doctors trained abroad as it faces COVID-19 due to a burdensome medical licensing system.

“We immigrate because we are qualified professionals and Canada needs physicians in terms of numbers and distribution,” said Dr. Vahid Nilforushan, an anesthesiologist who trained in Iran. “But then the health-care system is not letting us in.”

Licensing requirements include passing the IELTS language test to establish proficiency in English.

But testing has been cancelled around the world due to the pandemic, making it impossible for many of the more than 200 internationally-trained doctors who have passed the necessary exams to apply for a full licence to practise.

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C. is expected to approve a new “associate physician” class soon that would allow some international medical graduates to practise under supervision.

But the provisions exclude many trained physicians who could help ease the burden of the pandemic on the province’s health-care system.

It’s estimated thousands of internationally trained doctors across Canada are caught in an accreditation maze and unable to practise.

Nilforushan said he graduated at the top of his class in Iran and spent more than a decade practising medicine before immigrating to Canada to be close to family in 2010.

Despite passing all the required exams in both Canada and the United States, he could not get the required anesthesiology residency. There are about eight each year in Canada.

Once an associate professor of medicine in Iran, he now works training other international medical graduates to pass the required clinical exams.

Nilforushan said it makes no sense that trained doctors, many with experience in emergency triage medicine and generally younger than Canadian physicians, would be sidelined in a pandemic while retired doctors, who are more susceptible to the virus, are being called to re-register. “No one benefits from the current situation.”

Most general practitioners in Canada have between 12 to 18 months of clinical training.

But the associate physician class, introduced last fall and expedited due to the pandemic, requires at least two years. Similar programs in other provinces like Saskatchewan only require one year.

To be eligible internationally medical graduates also need a detailed letter of request for help from a health authority, a further burden for the health-care system.

A petition launched by a group of international graduates has garnered more than 1,500 signatures in support of making the new classification more accessible and establishing it as a path towards full registration.

Another petition addressed to federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu has been signed by nearly 20,000 people.

A spokesperson for the college of physicians said the proposed requirements remain unchanged and the college is currently “not looking at other avenues to ease the application process specifically for IMGs [International Medical Graduates].”

“I don’t think this new class helps with the pandemic,” said Nilforushan. “And for IMGs like me, it’s better to do something long term, and to make fundamental advancements [towards licensing].”

Dr. Patricia Mahecha, who practised emergency medicine in Colombia before fleeing violence and arriving in Canada in 2008, said it’s frustrating and disheartening that her skills aren’t being used when the health-care system could see a surge in cases.

Instead she joins the cheers for health-care workers each night, and hopes she will one day be on the frontlines again.

“We want to work, we want to help, and it’s very frustrating that we cannot do it,” said Mahecha, who is now trying for a second time to become fully licensed after earning her master’s in public health. “Because it’s the time to help the country.

“We are very grateful, and we can contribute to this society.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Coronavirus

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