HEALTH: The Future of Rural Medicine in NL

Dr. Katherine Stringer
Faculty of Medicine, Memorial University

Encouraging new family physicians to establish practices in rural Newfoundland and Labrador is critical, and something Memorial University’s Faculty of Medicine has been doing for decades – the medical school has even been recognized by the Society of Rural Physicians of Canada for having the most graduates choosing rural family medicine residency programs in a given year and the largest number of rural practicing
graduates after 10 years. And yet, recruitment of young doctors into rural areas is still a challenge. We know that if medical students are introduced to family and rural medicine early and repeatedly during their years of training, they are much more likely to choose it as a career option. However, once they leave medical school and begin practicing in rural areas, they have many challenges to overcome, including significant professional and social isolation.

In larger hospital-based regions, physicians may have access to inter-professional teams made up of occupational therapists, social workers, psychologists, and so on. These teams provide an environment of collaboration for physicians and a continuum of care for patients. In some rural areas, however, the same access to a network of health practitioners does not exist, leaving a significant gap in patient care, as well as adding
a significant challenge of isolation for rural family physicians.

Fortunately, there have been steps taken to pilot these primary healthcare teams in several parts of the province over the last few years. In addition, advances in technology—such as electronic file keeping, video-conferencing, and secure messaging —will help future rural doctors balance the demands of rural family medicine and help them provide a high level of care to their patients.

Family medicine practice in this province must also consider the aging demographics, as well as the prevalence of chronic diseases. Each family physician in the province would already need to care for approximately 400 more patients than the average family doctor in Canada, based purely on an equal distribution of patients. This number does not consider the frequency or complexity of medical care in an older population, further emphasizing the need to rethink how healthcare is delivered, especially in rural parts
of the province.

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