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Northern medical school gets mixed reaction

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Amid the uproar in Thunder Bay over the province’s decision last Thursday to choose Laurentian University over Lakehead University as the main campus for the Northern Rural Medical School, others are standing by the choice.

“[The Northwestern Ontario Associated Chambers of Commerce] believes this is a viable solution. And we’re getting the school we asked for,” said NOACC president-elect Tannis Drysdale of Fort Frances.

“The concept was very simple and very clear. If you have a medical school in the north, you can attract and train physicians that stay in the north,” she stressed.

“Training for the first two years at Laurentian University, with Lakehead University as a satellite school, is a reasonable response from the government.

“We got what we asked for,” Drysdale said.

Wayne Woods, CEO of Riverside Health Care Facilities Inc. here, said the school should be an advantage to Northern Ontario.

“If [doctors] can get trained in the north, maybe they’ll get to love the north. And maybe they’ll be from the north, which is great,” he remarked.

Health and Long-term Care minister Tony Clement’s announcement last week stated the provincial government will:

•create a northern medical school with a main site at Laurentian University in Sudbury and a satellite clinical education campus at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay while making use of the latest e-learning technology;

•expand undergraduate and post-graduate enrolment by 120 positions over the next two years across the province—one year sooner than recommended by the Expert Panel on Heath Professional Human Resources (this is in addition to the 40 positions added last fall, brining the total increase to 160); and

•increase post-graduate training positions by up to 25 in northern and rural communities beginning in 2002.

It is expected the new northern medical school will begin admitting students (55 undergraduates) in 2004, the minister’s office said in a press release.

It also is expected that 20 of the 55 students will move to Thunder Bay, beginning in 2006, to complete two years of clinical training while the remaining 35 will stay in Sudbury for that training.

Both Sudbury and Thunder Bay would offer permanent post-graduate specialty positions. Most of the research capabilities will be located at Laurentian University.

But it’s the fact the medical school won’t be split evenly between the universities that has some calling the decision a “sell out” of Northwestern Ontario.

NDP leader Howard Hampton referred to the announcement as “a made-in-Toronto solution that shows once again that the Conservatives don’t have a clue what people in Northwestern Ontario need, want, and have demanded.

“The Conservatives seem to think that people in this part of Ontario don’t get sick,” he added. “Well, they do and that’s why they need a full-scale medical school campus in Thunder Bay.”

Hampton also charged the clinical education campus at Lakehead University will be nothing more than a classroom with television monitors relaying lectures from Laurentian University, and that a complete medical school campus is necessary in order to attract and keep doctors in the northwest.

Lakehead University president Fred Gilbert was quoted in the May 18 edition of the Thunder Bay Chronicle Journal as saying the announcement was a “betrayal” of the twin campus concept.

“Without a full functioning medical school campus in Thunder Bay, Northwestern Ontario’s physician shortage may not be addressed adequately and the solidarity of support for a visionary, innovative, rural-based medical school has been fractured,” he remarked, adding northern partners will lobby the province to change its plan.

Michael Gravelle, Thunder Bay-Superior North MPP, also criticized the decision.

“Last month, this government used patronizing words to describe their support for a ‘made-in-Northern Ontario’ medical school—would it be one site or two? Would it be the plan put forward by Lakehead and Laurentian Universities that had been universally-supported across the north?’

“They wouldn’t say . . . now we know why,” he argued.

Dr. Rosana Pellizarri, of the Toronto-based Medical Reform Group, lauded the decision to create the school but questioned the financial problems that may stem from it.

“Ensuring the new school provides a top-rank medical education will require careful thought and planning, the co-operation of the medical community throughout the province, and adequate resource allocation,” she noted.

“Given the government’s continued commitment to corporate tax cuts, we worry that the huge funding requirements for the new school will lead to other public health and education programs to suffer,” Dr. Pellizarri warned.

With medical school fees at more than $10,000 a year, she also said

the affordability for northern families was questionable.

“The government’s decision to allow schools to raise tuitions astronomically has made medical education a privilege reserved for the affluent.

“Encouraging Northern Ontario medical trainees while excluding Canadians of modest means is a hypocritical policy,” said Dr. Pellizarri.

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