A medical resident who came to Nova Scotia as an international student says the province is losing out on good doctors due to immigration challenges.
For the past several years, a handful of international students have attended medical school at Dalhousie University, but due to immigration requirements some have left the province to complete their residency program.
Dr. Abhinaya Yeddala is a medical resident now, but she says the process was difficult and discouraging.
Originally from India, she came to Nova Scotia in 2016 to attend Dalhousie University through a partnership with the International Medical University in Malaysia. She graduated in 2019.
But upon completion of the program, she was unable to apply for a resident position because Nova Scotia only accepts residents who are Canadian citizens or have permanent resident status — something you can’t apply for as a student.
It then took her two-and-a-half years to get permanent resident status, describing the system as a “backwards immigration process.”
“It’s almost like a catch-22, because you can’t get your (permanent resident status) without work, and the work we’re trying to get into needs (permanent resident status),” she said.
“As long as it’s a legal immigration status to work, it should be good enough.”
Due to this hurdle, Yeddala said many of her fellow international students decided to apply for a medical residency elsewhere.
“They either went to the States, they went to the U.K., they went back to Malaysia or their home country,” she said. “So we lost a lot in that process.”
Yeddala said she knows at least eight doctors in training who moved away to do their residency — “well-qualified medical students who were just lost to other countries.”
She said in a province and country hurting for doctors, the process should be easier, like it is in the U.S. or U.K.
“They look at your application, they do interviews just like Canada,” she explained. “And then once they get in, once a residency spot is guaranteed, then they look at immigration status and they actually help them get that status.”
In an interview, Immigration Minister Sean Fraser noted that in this case, Yeddala was part of a specific program that did not guarantee a residency spot.
He said international students can apply for work visas upon graduation, allowing them to work.
“If there was a job offer made to a particular individual, the ordinary course would allow us to issue what’s called a post-graduate work permit to someone who’s finished their studies in Canada at an institution within our borders that would allow them to continue to practice,” he said.
“To the extent that the residency matching service is able to overcome their residency requirements, we would be more than happy to work with anyone to make it easier for physicians to practice in Canadian provinces.”
He said the application for residency programs is left up to provinces, and currently every province except for Quebec requires applicants to be citizens or have permanent resident status.
However, Fraser noted there are other ways the department is helping already qualified doctors come to Canada.
He said the government recently waived the requirement that physicians not be self-employed while taking part in federal immigration pathways.
He also said $90 million has been earmarked to allow jurisdictions to apply for money to speed up the process for foreign credential recognition.
“We have tried to open up several different rules that make it more flexible to attract more and more health-care workers,” he said.
“Let’s not pretend this one issue is the only thing … to open the doors for more health-care workers.”
Fraser said in the last five years, 4,000 physicians and 13,000 nurses have gained permanent residency in Canada.
For the most part, Dalhousie University focuses on Canadian students.
In a statement, university spokesperson Jason Bremner said that for the 2023-24 year, there were 134 first-year positions in Dalhousie’s faculty of medicine funded by Nova Scotia, P.E.I. and New Brunswick.
International students are usually not eligible, though there are two ways they can be admitted to the medical school.
There are a “limited number” of first-year positions for international students funded by external organizations, said Bremner — but they don’t have corresponding residency positions.
“These students are often required to sign return of service agreements with their home organization,” he said. “Fewer than 10 students have been admitted through this program over the past 10 years.”
As well, since 1996, Dalhousie had a partnership with the International Medical University in Malaysia, where international students could complete a medical doctorate degree.
However, Brenmer said this program also did not have corresponding residency positions, and noted that the agreement with IMU ended with the 2023-24 academic year.
“We are welcoming our final cohort of three students next year for the Class of 2025,” he said.
Meanwhile, Yeddala said it should be easier for international doctors to train and work in Nova Scotia.
She said there should be more residency spots available for international graduates, and believes there should be another immigration path to allow future doctors to work more easily.
“If they want more doctors, I think this is one piece that they’re missing,” she said.