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MOU signed on new physician training centre

Posted on June 6, 2024 by Ryan Dahlman

By Al Beeber
Southern Alberta Newspapers

A memorandum of understanding was signed by the universities of Lethbridge and Calgary on May 17 for the new rural medical education training centre that will begin operating in the fall of 2025.

The U of L is partnering with the University of Calgary on the centre in Lethbridge while the University of Alberta will partner with Northwestern Polytechnic to develop one in Grande Prairie.

Capital funding of $43.2 million is being invested in the Lethbridge centre while a total of $55.6 million will be used to support operating expenses for the centre here and in Grand Prairie.

An additional $126 million will support the overall physician training expansion in Alberta. 

Two ministries – Health and Advanced Education – are jointly responsible for the training of physicians in Alberta.

Through the partnership of the two universities, students will have the chance to complete their University of Calgary medical degree entirely at the U of L.

After a series of speeches by dignitaries including  U of L president and vice-president Digvir Jayas who acted as emcee for the event on Level 8 in the Science Commons building, the MOU was signed in front of a large audience.

Signatories were University of Lethbridge Provost and Vice-President (Academic) Michelle Helstein and University of Calgary interim Provost and Vice-President (Academic) Penny Werthner.

Initially, beginning in the fall of 2025 there will be 10 seats per year at the U of L centre which will ramp up to 30, Advanced Education Minister Rajan Sawhney told Southern Alberta Newspapers last month in an interview before the announcement of the training centre.

The centre will give an opportunity for students from here and the region to study close to home. The province has said the two centres are the first steps in solving the shortage of physicians in rural Alberta.

Both training centres will be delivering an entire under-graduate medical education program and will deliver hands-on learning experiences in rural communities surrounding them, says the province.

Speakers including the university’s professor emeritus Leroy Little Bear talked about the significance of what was called several times a historic day in providing the chance for many southern Albertans without a doctor to get the healthcare they need.

Little Bear said in Alberta communities “if one part of our population is not being well taken care of health-wise it affects all of us,” just a like a head cold affects a person’s entire system.

He added that general practitioners are an important element of health care because they take a holistic approach to a person’s system. 

He said in the past, medical practitioners always usually flocked to bigger centres because of specialization “but the southern Alberta medical program is talking more about general practitioners and general practitioners we would like to see out in our communities.”

“We are excited to partner with the University of Calgary to develop a new rural medical education program training centre right here at the university campus,” said Jayas in his statement.

The program will help address the physician shortage in communities outside the province’s urban centres, he added.

The MOU confirms the commitment and the formalizes a “unique medical education partnership,” he added.

Werthner said after the ceremony that “this a unique partnership.” She thanked the province for funding the program to ensure “that we can provide physicians both being trained and staying and living and working in the community which is what we so need in this province.

“And the partnership between University of Calgary – where we have a medical school and great expertise – and then partnering with the University of Lethbridge to put that place in this location, is absolutely unique,” Werthner added.

“What I love about it is it shows that we can work very well together as educational institutions to do what the community really needs to have done with our expertise.”

The U of C has a well respected medical school and to bring its expertise to Lethbridge speeds up the process of training physicians here.

“That is such a critical piece again to train them here where they will continue to live and practice because we are very well aware we need many many more physicians and particularly family physicians.”

Helstein said “having the paperwork signed is really a culmination of a whole set of work that has happened long in advance of getting to the point of MOU so it’s a really exciting day because what it does is formalize really hard work.”

Helstein added “it recognizes that we are indeed moving forward with this initiative thanks to funding from the government of Alberta.”

The program, Helstein said, will have a “huge impact on the availability of doctors not only in city of Lethbridge but across southern Alberta. What we know is that if we recruit students locally and we train them locally, they are just way more likely to stay” locally.

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