Northern Ontario medical student welcomes loan forgiveness, but says more can be done to recruit doctors

Northern Ontario medical student welcomes loan forgiveness, but says more can be done to recruit doctors

A medical student in northern Ontario says she welcomes the federal government’s plans to forgive their student loans, but more can be done to attract doctors to rural and remote areas.

On Tuesday, the federal government announced a plan to forgive up to $60,000 in student loans for family physicians who practise in rural and remote areas of Canada. Nurses and nurse practitioners who practise in the same areas will qualify for up to $30,000 in loan forgiveness.

“These changes strengthen the health workforce,” the government said in its news release. “They also contribute to making the debt loads more manageable.”

The Ontario Medical Association says 2.3 million people in the province don’t have a family doctor, and has called the situation “especially challenging” in northern and rural Ontario.

A blue sign saying NOSM University with a stone building in the background
The Northern Ontario School of Medicine, or NOSM University, has campuses in Sudbury and Thunder Bay. Its goal is to train medical students who will practice in northern Ontario. (Kate Rutherford/CBC)

Julie Leroux, president of NOSM University’s student council, said medical school costs around $25,000 per year and the average debt load for a medical student upon graduation is $90,000.

“Medical school is usually pretty demanding in terms of schedule, in terms of what it asks of you. So it’s pretty hard to have even a part time job during medical studies,” Leroux said.

“So you’re really having to fund your education kind of through either grants or scholarships or loans for the most part.”

Leroux said the federal loan forgiveness program would help people who want to practise medicine in rural and remote areas, but it also only covers a portion of the debt students take on.

She said the Canada Student Loan covers about half of her tuition costs, and many students rely on private loans or lines of credit to help pay for their studies.

The loan forgiveness program also only applies to family physicians.

Leroux said northern Ontario also has a shortage of specialists, who take on significant debt during their studies.

“Many patients face years-long wait times to see specialists and others travel hundreds of kilometres to receive their care.”

Nothing to address rentention, says doctor

Dr. Dannica Switzer, a family physician who works as a locum in northern Ontario, filling in for doctors when they take time off, said loan forgiveness is a positive step, but it does nothing to help with retention in rural and remote areas.

Switzer said it’s important to retain experienced doctors who are already practising in the north.

The Group Health Centre in Sault Ste. Marie made national headlines when it announced it would be removing 10,000 patients from its roster because it’s losing doctors to retirement and doesn’t have anyone to replace them.

Switzer said long-term planning is needed to ensure family physicians stay in northern Ontario and don’t burn out.

“We probably need a northern rural co-ordinating centre, some sort of body to develop policies and plans, and implement programs, and reassess them and see if they’re making a difference.”