Some doctors are concerned about plans for a new medical school in Cape Breton

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Two local doctors question a campaign by Cape Breton University to create its own medical school in Sydney, Nova Scotia

Dr. Stephanie Langley is a family physician in North Sydney and oversees a family medicine residency program offered to physicians-in-training at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

“We’re a small province and for a province this size that runs two independent medical schools, I don’t know if that’s money well spent,” Langley said.

“[We’re] already very busy with people involved in teaching and just thinking about expanding that further into medical school is quite a leap and so, I just have concerns about people’s time and space to be able to do this.

Langley said rather than investing money in brick-and-mortar school buildings, taxpayer dollars would be better spent expanding residency training in rural areas.

“People are very clinically busy and so the pandemic has, if anything… put us a bit behind schedule,” Langley said. “Clinicians are very busy providing patient care, and to teach you have to take time. We would need … more clinicians, more faculty members to be able to make people take time to teach.”

In Cape Breton, some local physicians help teach students in three residency programs run by Dalhousie University, as well as its third-year clerkship program.

Dr. Faith Dodd works as an associate professor at Dalhousie University in Sydney. She said there are already difficulties finding doctors to teach in these programs.

“We would just have a trail of students following us,” Dodd said of CBU’s project proposal.

“The biggest concern for me is patient care. It takes away from our clinical time and we can barely cover the clinical part of the practice.”

Dodd said there are several avenues to attract more doctors to rural areas, such as recruiting more students who grew up in those communities.

“It’s an Atlantic Canada problem and I think it’s probably not something that’s easily solved with one solution,” she said. “To consider increasing the number of family doctor seats and increasing positions with some type of incentive… would definitely be helpful.”

This isn’t the first time CBU has considered its own medical school.

Former president John Harker said he pitched the idea to community leaders in 2012, shortly before he retired.

Harker said the value of such a school is even more evident today given the challenges in Nova Scotia’s health care system.

CBU could set itself apart from other medical schools by leading the way in topics such as Indigenous health deficits in Canada, he added.

“It seemed to me that Sydney, given its location and its growing partnerships with our Mi’kmaq communities, would be the right place to have a really interesting medical school, so you know, that’s where she is born.”

Harker said the response was lukewarm when he first pitched the idea.

“There were a few people who came back and said ‘This is something to think about in the future’, but there was also a surprising silence.”

Last week, CBU President David Dingwall said the university was trying to address the shortage of primary care doctors in the province. He said the CBU proposal would focus on training physicians for work in rural practices and result in the creation of a collaborative medical clinic that would serve up to 10,000 patients.

On a list of work completed so far, the university says it spent a year discussing the project with more than 100 local doctors.

CBU is also piloting a program with Dalhousie University to fund five medical school seats for students from rural Nova Scotia to study at Halifax University. Students must commit to working in a rural area for five years after graduation.

Dingwall said CBU is also in talks with an unnamed university to become a partner in the project.

A spokesperson for the Dalhousie Faculty of Medicine said Radio-Canada News this week that he has no details to share regarding CBU’s proposal.

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