Tetiana Psaras wants nothing more than to be on the front lines of Canada’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
She has a medical degree from a Ukrainian university and several years of work as a general surgeon in her home country, but says she can’t practise medicine in Canada.
“Being a physician is not a job, it’s a lifestyle,” she said in an interview from her home in Grand Manan, N.B. ”And words cannot express the loss I feel of losing my identity.”
That loss feels all that much harder as hospitals across the country are bracing for a surge in the number of COVID-19 cases, while facing a shortage of life-saving medical equipment.
“Not being able to use my experience in the Canadian health-care system is really heartbreaking,” said Psaras, who knows a thing or two about medical equipment shortages given her experience in Ukraine.
Psaras says there are many foreign-trained doctors who could treat COVID-19 patients when resources are stretched so thin that retired doctors and nurses are being called back to work.
The Canadian Resident Matching Service, or CaRMS, reports thousands of internationally trained doctors apply for positions as residents each year. There are a limited number of spots in residency programs for international medical graduates, meaning many who move to Canada with visions of launching or restarting their career must find other work.
In 2019, according to CaRMS, fewer than a quarter of international medical graduates who applied for residency positions were matched to them — 391 out of 1,725 applicants.
Only those who have already passed a series of exams are allowed to apply. That’s a goal Psaras is still working toward five years after moving to Canada to be with her husband.
In the meantime, she volunteers at the Canadian Red Cross and works in quality assurance at a medevac company, “to be as close as I can to patient care,” she said.
Dr. Ayesha Badiuzzaman, a Hamilton-based researcher who got her medical degree in Bahrain, and worked as a doctor in both Bahrain and Qatar, said her current situation is both disappointing and frustrating.
“As a doctor, you feel it’s your moral imperative to help in a health-care situation when something like this happens. And there’s thousands of us across Canada who want to help, who are trying to help,” Badiuzzaman said. ”We’re a huge untapped resource that’s just sitting here.”
She said governments and regulatory bodies should act quickly, before a wave of COVID-19 cases overwhelms the health-care system.
“Everybody is saying it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” she said. ”So we think the time to act or at least have a reserve of health-care workers is now, not later when you’re just scrambling to play catch up.”
Badiuzzaman and another internationally trained doctor have started a Facebook group for people in similar situations, hoping to make their presence known. It’s now more than 500 members strong.
Shafi Bhuiyan, who got his medical degree in Bangladesh but wasn’t approved to practise in Canada, said if internationally trained doctors can be put to work in this crisis, maybe Canadians will see their value going forward.
Bhuiyan has founded a program at Ryerson University’s Chang School of Continuing Education that prepares internationally trained doctors for non-licensed work in Canada’s health sector.
He said now is the time to bring all these medical professionals into the fold.
“I think of all of the sorts of experts we have in this country to support our community health and our health system,” he said.
But the association that represents the regional physicians’ regulatory bodies said that for now, calling international medical graduates to action isn’t on the table.
“The focus has been on licensing recently retired physicians and/or senior medical residents, and that appears to be sufficient for any surge capacity that might exist at the moment,” said Fleur-Ange Lefebvre, executive director and CEO of the Federation of Medical Regulatory Authorities of Canada.
The College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia, however, is moving in a different direction.
On Wednesday, it announced it was looking to amend its bylaws to allow internationally trained doctors to work “under the direction and supervision of attending physicians” so long as they have at least two years of post-graduate training and the first part of the qualifying exams.
A spokeswoman for the college said the amendment had been in the works since last year, but the minister of health fast-tracked it due to the pandemic. It’s now in a mandatory 15-day review period.
Health Canada declined to comment, saying the issue is determined on a regional level, and spokespeople for health ministers in New Brunswick and Ontario did not respond to a request for comment.
Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press