As Canada grapples with a doctor shortage, Ottawa announces immigration stream for health workers

The federal government announced Wednesday it will use Canada’s immigration system to recruit more in-demand health-care workers as the country grapples with a severe shortage of some professionals in the field, such as family doctors.

Speaking at an event in Bedford, N.S., Immigration Minister Sean Fraser and Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos unveiled a new dedicated “express entry” stream for health professionals in the economic immigration program.

They said a notice will soon go out to 500 foreign health workers inviting them to apply for permanent residency in Canada.

Another 1,500 workers will get an invitation next week — a staggered launch for a program that is expected to be well subscribed.

The invitations will go to foreign doctors, nurses, dentists, pharmacists, physiotherapists and optometrists as part of a push by the federal government to deal with a health-care crisis that is, in large part, a staffing crisis.

The situation is dire. An estimated six million Canadians do not have a family doctor, according to research compiled by Angus Reid. Canada is short of specialists as well.

The physician shortage is expected to be even more acute in just five years’ time. Federal data suggests Canada will be short some 44,000 doctors, including over 30,000 family doctors and general practitioners, by 2028.

WATCH: Canada is losing out on hundreds of qualified doctors each year. Here’s why

Canada is losing out on hundreds of qualified doctors each year. Here’s why

Canada is losing out on hundreds of qualified Canadian doctors trained abroad who can’t practice because they find it difficult to get residencies here due to a combination of red tape and bias.

“Health professionals have been working around the clock to provide world-class care to individuals in communities across Canada, but it’s no secret that our health system needs more workers to continue delivering the quality care that people in Canada deserve,” Fraser said.

Reporters hold up recording devices as Immigration Minister Sean Fraser speaks.
Immigration Minister Sean Fraser announced Wednesday a new dedicated health-care stream for the country’s economic immigration program — part of a push to double the number immigrants in the field. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

“In no sector is the labour shortage more prominent than in the health-care sector,” Duclos said.

“Today’s announcement will facilitate, fast-track and streamline permanent residency applications and help improve health workforce recruitment efforts by bringing more qualified health professionals into Canada.”

Fraser said that between 2017 and 2022, Canada welcomed around 21,000 health-care workers — a rate of just over 4,000 workers a year.

He said the goal now is to bring in around 8,000 new health-care workers a year.

“This is a big change,” Fraser said. “We can do more and with this new tool we’re going to do more. Health care is the number one concern for so many families.”

While the government is committed to bringing in more immigrant health-care workers, it’s not a cure-all for what ails the system.

The announcement Wednesday does not address ongoing issues with foreign credential recognition — something Ottawa also has vowed to address with the provinces and territories.

Medical licensing is strictly a provincial responsibility but the federal government has promised more money to help streamline a cumbersome process.

Foreign-trained doctors can immigrate to Canada — but that doesn’t mean they can actually work in their profession.

As CBC News has reported, there are Canadian-born doctors trained abroad who can’t come home to practise because of a tangle of red tape that makes it difficult to be licensed if you weren’t educated at a Canadian medical school.

The medical residency program is segregated, which makes it difficult for Canadian doctors who went to schools in countries like Australia, Ireland and the U.K. to come home and slide into the entry-level work required to be licensed.

And for doctors who already have gone through a residency and are working overseas, the months-long process to prove Canadian equivalency and get credentials verified acts as a serious deterrent.

To practice medicine in Canada, a foreign-trained doctor must have a degree from a recognized medical school, complete discipline-appropriate postgraduate training (a residency), write an exam and obtain a “licentiate” from the Medical Council of Canada and be certified through examination by either the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada (RCPSC) or the College of Family Physicians of Canada (CFPC).

The relevant provincial or territorial college of physicians and surgeons then decides whether a candidate should be licensed.

This is a years-long process and it’s costly for the medical professionals who engage in it.

“We will continue working with provinces, territories and stakeholders to address the health workers crisis by improving workforce planning, retention and the streamlining of foreign credential recognition so that new health professionals arriving in Canada can apply their skills and expertise faster,” Duclos said.


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