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Lethbridge, Grande Prairie getting med school training centres to boost rural health care

Alberta's Minister of Advanced Education Rajan Sawhney said less than seven per cent of physicians in the province practice in rural areas.  (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Alberta's Minister of Advanced Education Rajan Sawhney said less than seven per cent of physicians in the province practice in rural areas. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The next generation of Alberta's medical students can skip urban sprawl and crammed LRT cars in favour of two of the province's mid-sized cities.

The provincial government announced plans on Wednesday to open new physician training centres in both Lethbridge and Grande Prairie.

The University of Calgary is partnering with the University of Lethbridge to create a medical training centre in the southern part of the province.

Meanwhile, the University of Alberta is working with Northwestern Polytechnic to open a training centre in the north.

Minister of Advanced Education Rajan Sawhney laid out the program details on Wednesday at the University of Lethbridge, citing the need to reign in the shortage of physicians in smaller communities around the province.

"Right now, only 6.6 per cent of Alberta physicians work in rural areas," she said.

"We know that increasing medical education opportunities in rural areas is a proven means of increasing physician recruitment and retention."

The University of Calgary and the University of Alberta are among the schools making changes in their residences in case COVID-19 restrictions remain in place this fall.
The University of Calgary and the University of Alberta are among the schools making changes in their residences in case COVID-19 restrictions remain in place this fall.

Medical students at the two training centres will receive degrees from the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta. (David Bell/CBC/University of Alberta)

Wheatland County Reeve and Rural Municipalities of Alberta director Amber Link said some of Alberta's rural hospitals are facing emergency room, operating room and obstetrical unit closures.

She added the shortage of health care professionals is forcing some residents to travel long distances to access care at other facilities.

"I think it's projects like this new education program that [are] going to help actually address that issue," said Link.

The province has set aside $224.8 million in the 2024 budget to boost physician training in rural areas.

Together, the two training centres will contribute more than 100 practicing physicians every year, according to the province.

Dr. Brenda Hemmelgarn, dean of the U of A's Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, said the program will focus on "generalist specialties" like family medicine, general surgery, general psychiatry, and general pediatrics.

Students will be awarded degrees from the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta, but won't be asked to step on either school's main campus, she added.

"The entire undergraduate medical education program can be delivered in these centres," said Hemmelgarn.

The training centres will also provide primary care in Lethbridge and Grande Prairie, and general practitioners in the teaching clinic will care for approximately 1,200 patients, according to the province.

The program's first cohort of medical students is expected to start their studies in the fall of 2025, said University of Lethbridge president Digvir Jayas.

"From today, I would say [in] about six years' time we would have practicing doctors," he said, adding that students will help alleviate health care shortages in both communities before finishing their training.

"When they are in the residency program, they would be providing medical support under the supervision of the practicing doctors."

Alberta Find A Doctor, a website run by Alberta's primary care networks that lists physicians taking on new patients, showed no general practitioners in Lethbridge or Grande Prairie accepting new patients on Wednesday.