Keeping workers in rural spots explored
Medical representatives from eight countries, including Canada, have met in Thunder Bay to explore new ways to recruit and retain health and public sector workers in rural Northern communities.
Dr. Roger Strasser, founding dean of the Northern Ontario School of Medicine, says the program has been in the works for three years and is successful.
“There is a lot of work being done and a lot of new initiatives have (been) developed,” he says. “It’s very impressive.”
The European Union-funded program focuses on recruitment and retention of health and other public sector workers in the rural parts of the northern countries of Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Greenland, Scotland, and Ireland. The Northern Ontario School of Medicine is the non-EU partner. Several colleagues from across Canada also attended the conference.
Strasser says the contingent is working across national borders, languages and cultures to explore and understand the key challenges.
Some of these obstacles involve the proper training, preparation and support for doctors, nurses and other health-care providers while working in these remote communities.
“And then there’s the fact that the health professional is a family member and has a spouse and children,” Strasser said, adding that there is a need to develop the proper family and social support.
“The involvement with the NOSM has brought experience and expertise, (to the program) particularly in relation to education and training.”
Strasser says there are three factors most strongly associated with going into rural practice, the first being a rural upbringing or having grown up in a rural setting.
The second is the education that the undergraduate gets through their medical doctor program in the community-setting and the third factor is after graduation, the post-basic training that prepares the graduate to practice in that setting.
“We do all of that in Northern Ontario and it’s successful,” said Strasser.
“We have our graduates who are now health-care providers in small communities in Northern Ontario. We have experience and expertise that we have been sharing. The Europeans are very interested in learning what we are doing and how we do that so they can apply those sort of lessons in their situation.”
Dr. Sigurdur Sigurdsson, the medical director at Akureyri Hospital in Iceland, has spent some extra time at NOSM, a few days prior to the conference.
“I’ve learned a lot of interesting stuff there,” he said.
“They do medical education in a way that seems to work very well for the area here and it’s a win-win situation. It gives people the opportunity to get a good medical education in a new way.”
Sigurdsson also noted that the system has provided supplies to rural areas, as well as good-quality health-care professionals.
Strasser compared policies and programs from larger urban centres in Toronto and southern Ontario and says most of these initiatives do not work when you get into the situation of small populations and large distances.
“We have more in common with our colleagues in Greenland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden than we have with our colleagues in Toronto or elsewhere in southern Ontario,” he says.
Over the three-year evolution of the program, 30 different initiatives have been developed. Strasser says many of them (initiatives) involve cross-border collaboration between two or more countries.
“I think out of this conference, there will be a good network of collaboration across Canada and across the Atlantic for continuing to work together to develop and test out these initiatives and to improve the recruitment and retention of health and other public sector workers,” he said.