The Alberta government is committing $6-million towards a program intended to have more medical students work in rural communities.
The province said the funds will go towards covering the cost of medical student’s tuition and the money will be spread over three years. Students receiving the funding will complete residency training in rural Alberta and agree to remain in a rural community in the province upon graduation.
“We are pleased for this new program to get off the ground to get more doctors working in rural areas. Return of Service Agreements will give Albertans in rural and remote areas timelier access to a family doctor,” health minister Tyler Shandro said.
The Rural Health Professions Action Plan (RhPAP) will rollout the new Return to Service Agreement program. The province said RhPAP will consult with rural partners to determine program details.
“We are pleased that the government is taking steps to focus on the needs of rural health care,” Alberta Medical Association president Dr. Paul Boucher said in a statement.
“Physicians look forward to collaborating on further initiatives in the future. Involving medical students (and resident physicians) in both the planning and implementation of physician resource strategies will be essential.”
The announcement comes after earlier in the week Shandro said he regrets downplaying and dismissing the bitterness of a year-long fight with physicians over pay and working conditions. The health minister also admitted work needs to be done to rebuild trust with doctors, who are currently voting on whether to ratify a proposed new master agreement between the province and the Alberta Medical Association.
He said his comments made on March 9 to a legislature budget committee were poorly chosen and that he did not mean to diminish the concerns and the frustrations felt by physicians.
The fight with doctors began after Shandro unilaterally cancelled the master agreement with the association in early 2020 and implemented new fees that doctors called heavy-handed, unfair, and liable to force some family practices to close.
In response, doctors began withdrawing services, the A-M-A sued the province, and the two sides swapped angry attacks on social media before hammering out the tentative deal that is being voted on.
“Programs like this (Return to Service Agreement program) are looking quite far down the road. I think in the more immediate term, in order to increase rural capacity and to keep rural physicians within Alberta, we’re going to need to see more moves from the government to address some of those concerns faced by rural physicians and to mend his overall relationships with physicians within the province,” University of Calgary health law policy expert Lorian Hardcastle said.
The province said Alberta Health is spending about $90 million in 2021 to address rural physician recruitment and retention.
— With files from The Canadian Press