Growing the next generation of rural doctors
Linda Postma, Clinical Educator, Central Zone EMS Learning and Development is seen hooking up an electrocardiogram to electrodes on Colby Sych’s arm inside an ambulance as he learns about the machine during Young Medical Minds on Thursday last week. Melissa Ballantyne/ AHS
A group of Camrose medical professionals is taking a new approach to recruiting to rural Alberta — growing the next generation themselves.
To a degree, anyway.
Alberta Health Services started up Young Medical Minds three years ago with the idea of encouraging more local students to consider a career in the medical field. The theory is that it is easier to convince people who grew up in rural centres to return or stay there as opposed to convincing people to move there from urban centres or from out of country.
Young Medical Minds is the brain child of Camrose family physician Dr. Christopher Nichol.
“He’s a rural physician to the core and loves the work he does in rural communities and Camrose specifically,” said Alberta Health Services facilitator Carol Breitkreuz, adding they have partnered with Covenant Health and the University of Alberta-Augustana.
“He saw the need to really start to get kids thinking about what careers they could pursue and how they could do that within a rural context.”
Young Medical Minds has grown from Dr. Nichol’s original idea to include all professions in the field, be it first responders, doctors, nurses, physiotherapists or other career paths. Most rural doctors will have the unique opportunity to use almost all of their training instead of turning into pure specialists.
The program has two six-week sessions a year, one in the fall, which just started last Thursday, and one in the winter.
There are similar programs in operation, but most are geared towards high school or post-secondary students. This one takes aim at Grade 8 students. The exposure now will put it in their minds what the educational requirements may be that they need as they advance through school.
“It came about from my experience teaching,” said Breitkreuz, who taught for 28 years. “I realized that Grade 8 is a really good year to start to get them thinking about careers. If you are going to be serious about getting into some of the health care professions ... you really need to be serious about your academics in order to get into some of those highly competitive programs.”
Rural Health Professions Action Plan director of Rural Health Professions Development Paul Childs says these types of programs are an important tool for communities that struggle to recruit medical professionals. Though he says the challenge is not necessarily in selling the idea on the doctor, but usually their spouse. Having rural connections already in place, makes it a little easier to convince a couple or family to relocate to a smaller centre.
“Quite often doctors are married to other doctors or other professionals like lawyers or accountants ... so it can be challenging to find something for the spouse,” he said. “Also, geography or the perception of geography … can be an issue, just that feeling of distance.”
RhPAP is currently in discussions with local program organizers about their future involvement and support, but he is impressed with what they have done to this point.
“One thing we know from research evidence, if you can get young students from rural areas into health education programs … the odds that they’re going to go back to rural practice are much, much better,” said Childs, who points to other programs they have supported at older ages that have shown these results.
For Hay Lakes student Colby Sych, the program piqued his interest in becoming an EMT on the first night of the new session.
He and the 11 other local students from across the region were walked through a number of procedures and were given the rundown on how to use some of the equipment like electrocardiograms.
“I love working with my hands, and that’s definitely a high-paced job and I like that,” said Sych, 13, who is also considering becoming an engineer or a farmer. “Saving people would be a cool job that not everyone gets to do.”
He found out about Young Medical Minds through his school last spring and decided to register. The program is free to students who qualify through their application process which involves completing a proposal about why they want to take part and assurances about attendance. Enrollment is capped at 12 students per six-week course. The program started in 2015 with funding from the Health Sciences Association of Alberta and Camrose Rotary Club Daybreakers.
Young Medical Minds relies heavily on local volunteers from different fields.
Each week the students delve into a new aspect of the profession, to give them a taste of what is out there, that going into medicine does not just mean becoming a doctor or surgeon.
There are also a number of Augustana students who volunteer in the program, and they gain experience from it as well.
“Many of them are going into medical professions, so it’s fun for them to be experiencing the program along with the students but they’re assisting in the program,” said Breitkreuz. “It has a dual purpose, we’ve found.”