Canada needs more immigrant doctors to support the national healthcare system

Amidst a population boom of over five million people in the last ten years, Canada has added just 167 medical residencies over the same length of time, making it increasingly difficult for many Canadians to obtain regular access to a family doctor.

This is according to a late-January story by CBC News, which also noted that “more than 6.5 million Canadians do not have regular access to a family doctor.”

The population growth in this country, coinciding with many factors working against the availability of family doctors nationwide, has brought notable consequences for Canadians.

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This is a problem that governments at both the federal and provincial/territorial levels are attempting to rectify using the increased immigration of qualified healthcare professionals.

Barriers for current International Medical Graduates

According to Government of Canada data from December 2022, immigrants account for “one out of every four healthcare sector workers” in Canada.

In fact, further broken down by profession, immigrants make up the following percentage of all healthcare workers in Canada:

  • 23% of registered nurses
  • 35% of nurse aides and [those in] related occupations
  • 37% of pharmacists
  • 36% of physicians
  • 39% of dentists
  • 54% of dental technologists and [those in] related occupations

Despite this, according to CBC News, foreign nationals who are trained as doctors in other countries – otherwise known as International Medical Graduates (IMGs) – often struggle, with obtaining a medical residency in Canada due to “quotas on how many [IMGs] can get a spot.”

In addition, IMGs struggle with pursuing medical practice in Canada because the residency system is “run by medical schools that favour their own graduates.”

According to Dr. Kathleen Ross, the president of the CMA, this creates an issue for Canada’s healthcare system because “the country isn’t producing nearly enough homegrown primary care doctors to keep up with the country’s health needs.”

Therefore, while Canada needs foreign-trained doctors to support its Canadian-born workforce in the healthcare industry, IMGs in Canada face unique hurdles that can prevent them from practicing.

Canada is addressing the issues faced by IMGs by investing in foreign credential recognition

In addition to bringing more qualified healthcare professionals to Canada (more on that later), Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) has committed to addressing the issue by investing in foreign credential recognition.

A January news release from Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) outlined a plan from the Canadian government that will provide up to $86 million in funding to 15 organizations across Canada.

According to ESDC, this funding will be actioned to “increase capacity for [the] foreign credential recognition of approximately 6600 internationally educated health professionals, [supporting] highly educated and skilled immigrants [to ensure they] receive proper recognition for their international credentials.”

More: Click here for more information on Canada’s investment in foreign credential recognition for the healthcare industry

Other reasons why Canada is experiencing a lack of family doctors

Canada is experiencing record-high population growth, including its fastest-paced population growth in any single quarter since 1957 in the third quarter of 2023. However, the availability of family doctors is unable to keep pace for several reasons.

Declining interest in family medicine among medical graduates

The January story from CBC News indicates that there is a declining interest in family medicine among Canadian medical graduates.

First, according to a Canadian Resident Matching Service (CaRMS) report cited by CBC News, the percentage of graduates who “picked family medicine as their discipline for residency training” has declined by over seven percent in the last nine years. In 2014, 37.8% of graduates chose family medicine, while this number was just 30.3% in 2023.

Furthermore, estimates from the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) suggest that roughly 1,000 more family doctors are “leaving the profession” every year compared to the number of “new ones coming into the workforce.”

Finally, Canada Health Workforce Network director Ivy Lynn Bourgeault told CBC News that “more and more family doctors are obtaining credentials to work in emergency and sports medicine and anesthesiology, for example, which takes them out of the clinic environment.”

Taken together, these realities indicate a lack of interest in the discipline among Canadians pursuing careers in healthcare, which has created a significant roadblock when it comes to accessing family medicine.

Minimal growth in medical residencies 

As highlighted earlier, according to CBC News, “Canada’s medical schools are admitting only 167 more doctors for mandatory postgraduate training than they did 10 years ago.” This is problematic, according to federal data cited by CBC News, because current population projections suggest Canada will need close to 49,000 additional family doctors by 2031.

Fortunately, some provincial governments are working to rectify this problem by expanding medical school capacity in the coming years. Healthcare is a provincial and territorial responsibility and so they “are largely responsible for physician training and licensing.”

More steps are being taken to address this gap

Beginning at the federal level, in addition to investing in foreign credential recognition, Canada is aiming to bring more foreign-trained doctors into the country through its category-based Express Entry draws.

Introduced in May 2023, category-based draws are a type of Express Entry draw introduced by IRCC to attract more foreign nationals with experience in key employment sectors across Canada. Healthcare is one of five occupational categories that is being prioritized by IRCC through these draws.

Finally, at the provincial level, medical schools in three provinces are acting to either add more spaces for medical training or establish new medical schools altogether. These commitments have all been outlined in the recent article published by CBC News.

Ontario: The province has committed to the addition of 449 more “postgraduate medical training spaces over the next five years.” Of these, 154 spaces “are expected to come online later” in 2024 at different medical schools across the province.

Prince Edward Island (PEI): The University of PEI will open a new medical school in the fall of 2025.

British Columbia (BC): BC’s Simon Fraser University, has announced its plan to open a new medical school at the university’s Surrey campus in 2026.

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