Thousands of Immigrant Doctors Can't Fight Coronavirus in Canada

Physicians with experience in conflict and triage are struggling to get their international credentials recognized.
April 15, 2020, 7:13pm
Physicians with experience in conflict and triage are struggling to get their international credentials recognized.
Photo via Getty

When Dr. Patricia Mahecha hears her neighbours clanking pots and cheering for health care workers at 7 p.m., she thinks about what she could be doing to help Canada fight the coronavirus pandemic. As an emergency room doctor of 13 years, she’s treated her fair share of patients in crisis.

“I want to help every day—especially at 7 p.m.,” she said.

Mahecha has been a doctor in many different communities, but not in Canada. In Colombia, where she grew up, Mahecha served rural Indigenous communities and urban centres as a physician surgeon. During her time in the ER she’s handled everything from baby deliveries to shooting victims, to outbreaks of malaria and dengue fever.

Then, after paramilitaries threatened violence at her hospital over the treatment of guerrilla fighters, she came to Canada as a refugee in 2008. “I had to start my life from zero, and it was so difficult,” she told VICE. “I was leaving my life, leaving my family, leaving my work—leaving everything.”

More than a decade later, Mahecha is one of thousands of immigrant doctors living in Canada who are not working in medicine. At a time when Canada is bracing for the worst of the coronavirus outbreak, many doctors like Mahecha will not be deployed to treat COVID-19 patients because of the barriers they face getting their credentials recognized.

Canada had a shortage of doctors even before the coronavirus pandemic. According to one study, Canada has one of the lowest doctor-to-population ratios in the OECD. In Ontario, where coronavirus infection rates have shot up in recent weeks, the humanitarian relief organization Doctors Without Borders will operate for the first time at a new 400-bed homeless shelter in Toronto. As COVID-19 case loads grow in communities across the country, and as doctors infected with the virus are forced to isolate, demand for more health care workers is expected to grow.

Mahecha says she worked hard to improve her English and completed her first qualifying medical exam in 2011. But her need to make money in the short term put her efforts to complete Canada’s second round of tests on hold.

In Canada Mahecha has worked with organizations that help refugees access housing and health resources. She’s also volunteered with the Red Cross on a similar program geared at refugees, and completed a masters of public health at Simon Fraser University. But she won’t be able to complete her qualifying exams until after restrictions on public gatherings are lifted.

“It’s a lot of frustration. We want to help… we want to be part of the health workers working against this pandemic,” she said.

Mahecha knows she’s not alone. She mentions a friend who is a heart surgeon but working in construction, and has heard many more stories of doctors driving taxis or working as cashiers.

According to HealthForceOntario, there are 13,000 foreign-educated doctors in the province who are not working in medicine at all. Dr. Vahid Nilforushan says that fees, insurance challenges, and limited residency options keep international medical graduates from getting licensed in Canada.

Nilforushan graduated from med school at the top of his class, and spent more than a decade working as an anesthesiologist in Iran. In 2010 he immigrated to Canada to be closer to his sister in Vancouver. Though he completed his Medical Council of Canada exams, and interviewed for positions across Canada, he hasn’t been able to start his own practice.

Nilforushan now helps other internationally-trained doctors like Mahecha navigate Canada’s confusing medical licencing system.

More than 20,000 people have signed petitions urging Canada to fast track licenses for doctors with experience and education outside of the country, and some provinces are starting to move in that direction.

Ontario quietly opened a program to give 30-day work permits to doctors with international credentials who have completed qualifying exams. As of the beginning of April, only 12 people had applied, according to the CBC.

In British Columbia, the College of Physicians and Surgeons has emailed retired doctors and nurses with a request to renew their licenses. But with many retirees in a high-risk age group, elected leaders are calling on provinces to open more doors for internationally trained doctors.

B.C. has proposed a plan to allow immigrant doctors to work under supervision at hospitals. The new “associate physician” position has yet to be rolled out, but the bylaw change is expected to be approved soon.

Nilforushan says B.C. can do more to accommodate the skills and experience of international doctors. He recommends waiving registration fees and relaxing post-grad requirements to include doctors who have completed 18-month programs in a specialty.

When the Canadian Council for Refugees put out a request for anyone with healthcare experience to sign up as volunteers serving Quebec last month, Mahecha answered the call. She said she’s willing to travel and work for no compensation to fight COVID-19. So far, she has not heard back.

“I would like to do that, because I studied for that, and I know that there are at this time not enough physicians, so they need help,” Mahecha said.

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