SPOTLIGHT – It requires a coordinated effort to attract medical professionals to rural communities

Students take part in simulated trauma response in the STARS mobile education unit.
Students take part in simulated trauma response in the STARS mobile education unit.

Tom Henihan

A group of 25 student healthcare professionals was in the Smoky River region on March 18, 19 and 20 to participate in a medical skills event at McLennan Hospital.

Organized by the Rural Physician Action Plan (RPAP), the group, comprising of physiotherapist, paramedic, nursing and medical students participated in workshops on applying and removing casts, IV starts, surgical suturing and spine immobilization.

STARS mobile education unit was also on hand to provide trauma workshops. Part of the program was for the students to gain also some firsthand experience of being in a rural environment.

Established approximately 14 years ago, RPAP travels four times a year with groups of healthcare student to rural communities throughout the providence. The aim of inviting the students is to introduce them to the realities of practicing in a rural environment.

“RPAP has a sequential series of events with the ultimate objective of getting doctors out into rural Alberta and keeping them there,” says Rosemary Burness, RPAP’s Medical Student Initiative Adviser. “We lose physicians in a community for two reasons. One is that their families are not happy or they feel they are losing their skills.”
Burness points out that the community must be counted on to include the doctor and his or her family in what is going on in the community so it becomes home for them.

Doctors concerned about losing their skills due to not practicing in big hospitals is vitally important, even though the truth may be that they are almost more highly skilled because they see and deal with everything.
However, to address that matter RPAP provides a program to keep the skills of doctors practicing rural communities up-to-date.

“We don’t want anyone to feel like they are not on top of their game,” says Burness. “One group that is with us today is STARS and they have an educational component. STARS are very good at keeping everyone’s skills up-to-date, including physicians.”

Initially RPAP focused solely on recruiting doctors to rural communities but eventually expanded its mandate

“Over the years we expanded so that now we don’t just focus on getting doctors into the rural communities,” says Burness. “Now, along with medical students we bring student nurses, student physiotherapists, student paramedics and that is the group we have on this trip.”

Burness says that her function is to make medical students familiar with rural Alberta as early as possible, to give them a taste of it before they make decisions about the direction they will take in their careers. “Many of these students did not grow up in a rural environment,” says Burness. “They grew up in downtown Montreal or downtown Toronto; this is very foreign to them so they are the ones that we really need to hook in.”

A big part of what RPAP and the skills events try to address is most students fear that if they work in a small rural community, they are going to be the only doctor or the only nurse when a major emergency arises such as a big traffic accident.

“So one of the things we are doing today is that we have all the members of the local team here teaching the students; the local paramedics, the local nurses, the local physician of course. The intent is to show them that you are never alone, that you are part of a team here, so when a big accident happens you have that team of really highly skilled people working with you.”

This is the first time RPAP medical skills event has come to McLennan and although there are many other communities waiting for the opportunity, Burness anticipates that they will be back in a few years.

“You have some real acids here,” says Burness. “This is only the third community we have visited where you have housing onsite. Here you have a three-bedroom mobile home available, which is particularly helpful when someone is doing their practicum or is starting a job. So, very definitely, there has been some leadership in that area in this community.”

At the McLennan Hospital medical skills event, all of the six student nurses in the group were from the bilingual program at the University of Alberta.

“Of course, the main objective is to get them interested in rural medicine but it is necessary to get them interested in the communities in the region,” says Burness. “That is why we had to spread out, doing things in Girouxville, McLennan and the town of Falher, which is a designated Francophone community in Alberta.”

Members of the group stayed at the Esquire Hotel in Girouxville and the Honey Comb Inn in Falher. The activities they participated in were skiing, tubing and having dinner at Little Smoky Ski Area, Bowling in Girouxville, visiting Hank Strokappe Sheep Farm off highway 2 and visiting the Berube grain farm just north of Falher.

When ask if the Rural Physician Action Plan and the medical skills events were having a positive impact on rural communities, Rosemary Burness said the initiative certainly show positive results.

“RPAP has been in existence for about fourteen years and I have been doing this for about ten. In rural Alberta, more and more communities have a physician now. Communities like Milk River that had a tough time getting a doctor; I think it now has three physicians. Manning has been a difficult one also, but they now have two physicians. Yes for sure it is working.”


Dr. Pieter Dewet giving a surgical suturing session at McLennan Hospital.
Dr. Pieter Dewet giving a surgical suturing session at McLennan Hospital.

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