The Saudi-Canada Crisis Will Damage People’s Health

Canada needs these highly skilled individuals. Having completed their medical degrees, they’re now enrolled in residency programs across the country, where they train in specific areas of clinical medicine before being fully licensed to practice independently. They’re responsible for direct patient care on a daily basis, assisting in clinics, emergency departments, and operating rooms. They also do administrative tasks, like writing discharge paperwork and prescriptions. Their work is crucial to enabling institutions to provide round-the-clock medical care. In academic teaching hospitals, they also help attending physicians contribute to research, policy, and leadership initiatives that advance the profession.

The abundance of Saudi medical residents within the Canadian health-care system is a direct result of the King Abdullah Scholarship Program, which is coordinated by the kingdom’s ministry of education. Launched in 2005, the initiative’s goal was to become an “important source of support for the country’s private and public sectors by developing, qualifying, and preparing the necessary human resources” for their burgeoning labor force.

Vital to this goal was educating doctors who were expected to return to Saudi Arabia to build the medical infrastructure with expertise gained from abroad. Through the program, Saudi medical residents were paid by the kingdom, and Canadian institutions were also paid an additional annual stipend to help these doctors train. This generous financial incentive is the main reason for the proliferation of medical personnel from Saudi Arabia treating Canadian patients.

But this arrangement is now in jeopardy, as the Saudi-Canadian feud shows no signs of letting up. The impact on patient care could be significant, with experts warning of strain on a system that is already struggling with patient volumes. The president of the Ontario Medical Association, the largest provincial physician organization in the country, issued a statement that decried the decision to remove Saudi residents, who represent a core part of the medical workforce, and whose departure will adversely impact care at various levels.

If Canada were to grant Saudi medical residents a fast track to citizenship, Riyadh would probably withdraw its financial support of these individuals. But unlike practicing Saudi doctors in Canada—who can bill the Canadian government for their income, and are thus not formally financially tied to Saudi Arabia—medical residents need to be funded. The Canadian government would have to commit to paying their salaries for the duration of their training programs. And the recent decline in health-care payments meted out to provinces by the federal government would need to be reversed in order to reflect this new reality.

It would be an investment, but a worthwhile one. Canada is experiencing a well-documented shortage of doctors, which has been linked to a population that is growing in age and size. Cutbacks to residency training programs by the provincial governments who fund them have exacerbated wait times for primary and specialist care. In creating an expedited citizenship program for Saudi medical residents, the federal government would be staving off the possible health-care crisis that could result from their abrupt exodus. These residents may also prove to be invaluable to the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees resettled in Canada, with whom they may share a common language.

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