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Deadline for Saudi medical students at Dalhousie to leave Canada extended

WATCH: The sudden withdrawal of medical professionals in training from Saudi Arabia is leaving hospitals scrambling. And as Alicia Draus reports, the diplomatic dispute is already having an impact.

Saudi Arabian students across Canada have been told to leave the country by Aug. 31 because of a diplomatic spat between the two nations, however medical residents studying at Dalhousie University have had that deadline extended to Sept. 22.

The pending departure of almost 60 Saudi Arabian medical residents will cause surgical delays over the coming months, says an official with the Nova Scotia Health Authority.

Dr. Mark Taylor, executive medical director for the NSHA’s central zone, said “minor delays” would likely occur for scheduled surgeries as health officials look to fill gaps created by the departures.

“Patients who have been waiting for scheduled surgery, I would say there may be delays of up to a few weeks as a result of this, but I don’t think it will be more than that,” Taylor said in an interview Monday.

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“I don’t think the delays are likely to be major and probably we will be able to carry on because everybody takes up the slack.”

About 1,000 Saudi residents and fellows in Canada have been called back to the kingdom after diplomatic relations between the two countries were abruptly suspended over a tweet from a Canadian government official criticizing the Saudis’ arrest of female social activists.

READ MORE: Saudi Arabia lets doctors stay in Canada until September

Taylor said the NSHA, Dalhousie University, and the provincial Health Department are in the process of determining the needs of surgical areas facing acute problems, particularly orthopaedic, cardiac and neurosurgery departments. Internal medicine is another area where “we have some problems,” Taylor said.

Orthopaedic surgeries already have some of the longest wait lists in the province and losing so many residents at one time could increase those wait times.

“I don’t think it’s a crisis,” Taylor said.

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“I believe that there will be some delays in treatment but I believe those will be manageable, and we always have the capacity to treat urgent cases faster. That will never change.”

According to the Dalhousie website, there are 59 Saudi physicians working to complete their residency at the Halifax school, although the health authority said in an email the number is 58.

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Spokesman John Gillis confirmed there are 24 Saudi residents who work in surgical services, including 10 of 23 residents in orthopaedics and four of nine residents in cardiac surgery.

Gillis said those numbers include paediatric surgery so some of the residents would be primarily based at the IWK Children’s Hospital rather than facilities administered by the NSHA.

Taylor said it’s possible for doctors to be hired to work in fields that require coverage, although trainees won’t be introduced into the system until a new cohort arrives for the next academic year, which begins July 1.

“Some of those trainees were very senior in their training so some of them were providing highly sophisticated specialized medical services and those obviously can’t be replaced with just anybody off the street,” Taylor said.

He said some residents could prove very difficult to replace in the short term, which means more work over that period for local attending surgeons, residents and other specialists.

“Obviously, there is some concern and anxiety around that,” said Dr. Caitlin Lees, president of Maritime Resident Doctors.

“Residents already work very long hours. We do have a contract to regulate but we’re capped at 90 hours a week so it’s still a very long work week.”

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Complicating matters, Taylor said, is that provinces with much larger medical schools such as Quebec and Ontario will also be looking to hire new health professionals.

“Many other Canadian health-care training facilities are in the same position. McGill (University) and the University of Toronto are both in even worse situations than us so they will be trying to hire these people as well,” he explained.

WATCH: Doctors Nova Scotia pushing for better palliative care

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With the deadline extension, Saudi residents can continue to stay and work until Sept. 22. This gives them enough time to fit in another rotation, but for some medical students the news comes too late as they have already withdrawn from the program, and some have even left the country.

In an email, Health Department spokeswoman Tracy Baron confirmed that a plan is being developed in case all the residents depart.

“All the parties are working hard to mitigate against those impacts, and it’s too early to know what the clinical requirements and costs may be,” said Baron.

The residencies of Saudi students at Dalhousie’s medical school are funded by Saudi Arabia, and Health Minister Randy Delorey is on record as saying Nova Scotia can handle the losses.

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Doctors Nova Scotia says there will be a significant impact initially but there should be no major long-term effects. The organization pointed out that there didn’t seem to be a direct impact on the recruitment and retention of doctors, adding that many of the Saudis would have moved on to practice in other countries once their training was completed.

Taylor said the province had already previously announced that there will be 15 new residency positions added beginning next summer.

“That will go some ways to dealing with this problem, actually, since many of those positions will be taken up by new Canadian residents entering the system,” he said.

—With a files from The Canadian Press 

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