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Foreign-trained doctors file B.C. human rights complaint, claiming systemic discrimination

Internationally accredited doctors fight B.C.’s system
Internationally accredited doctors fight B.C.'s system

A group of internationally trained physicians and medical graduates have taken their fight against what they call systemic racism in B.C.’s residency program to the province’s human rights tribunal.

The 33-page complaint, filed earlier this month, names B.C.’s Ministry of Health, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C. and the University of British Columbia.

It claims the organizations are working together to restrict international medical graduates and foreign-trained physicians who are Canadian citizens or permanent residents from even being considered for 84 per cent of the resident physician positions in the province, which limits their ability to become practicing doctors, in spite of passing the exams.

They also say international medical graduates can only pursue resident positions in four of the 29 specialties.

“There are double standards unfortunately in Canada,” Vahid Nilforushan, one of the complainants in the case, told Global News.

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Neither the ministry, the college or UBC would comment on the matter because the case is before the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal.

In the past, UBC has argued training and standards, including clinical skills, are different for Canadian graduates.

Read more: Internationally trained doctors in Quebec want to help in coronavirus crisis

Nilforushan says he was trained in Iran, where he graduated with the highest honours in his class and practiced for more than 13 years before immigrating to Canada.

He says he practiced under supervision in Canada for more than three years after passing all the qualifying exams in this country.

Nilforushan was unable to get residency in anesthesia.

“I applied for a few years for interviews, there were none in anesthesia, just a few in family practice, so I wasn’t successful in the end,” he said.

Lead complainant Navid Pooyan says he’s lucky to have become licensed to practice as a family doctor in B.C. but he had to sign a contract, called Return of Service, designed to place doctors in rural or under-served communities. Canadian-trained physicians don’t have to sign this contact.

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“You are not allowed to continue your career, you’re not allowed to continue the profession you’ve retrained in for years, you’ve invested thousands of dollars for it and you’ve built a life based on it, so you have to sign this contract otherwise you don’t have the ability to be licensed and work as a physician in B.C.,” Pooyan said.

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Pooyan is refusing to abide by that contract he signed and says he’s facing a $247,716 penalty, according to a breach of contract letter from the Ministry of Health.

In that letter, dated Nov. 7, 2019, the ministry said it had received his emails highlighting concerns with this contract and the circumstances around his execution of it.

“We do not intend to substantively respond to those assertions here, but note your allegations are raised for the first time more than two years after the contract was signed and after you received the benefit of the province’s obligations to you under the contract,” the letter reads.

Politicians have been trying to solve the credential recognition problem for years. In 2012, then-B.C. Health Minister Mike de Jong promised action. This week he told Global News there were too many barriers.

“What I encountered was a lot of entrenched interests, a lot of what I call institutionalized arrogance,” de Jong told Global News.

“We expanded the number of physicians but we should have done more and I think that’s a challenge for the present government to create more residency positions,” he added.

De Jong refused to characterize the issue as systemic racism but former Vancouver Coastal Health medical health officer John Blatherwick didn’t hold back.

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“The thing here is that you would have said in the past, ‘Oh no, no, no this is legitimate, we are protecting the public from people who are not fully trained,'” said Blatherwick.

“But the truth is when you stop and look at it today, in the light of the things we know have been going on, this is racism.”

Amid a health crisis and a global reckoning on racial justice, advocates in this case hope now is the time for change.

Read more: Proposed B.C. change could put foreign-trained doctors to work during coronavirus pandemic

“The laws are pretty clear that we are to have an inclusive society, the laws are clear that there’s to be no discrimination without specific legislative authority, none of that exists,” retired lawyer and president of the society for Canadians Studying Medicine Abroad, Rosemary Pawliuk said.

“The way the system is structured, there’s money involved, financial incentives, there’s a double standard; it’s a system that is off the rails,” she added.

The complainants in this human rights case say unless there’s a shift in attitude, B.C. will continue turning its back on this untapped talent pool, in a time of great need for just that.