Lack of diversity worries Canadian medical students

Alex Butler

Medical students from across Canada lobbied at Parliament Hill Monday to bring awareness to politicians and bureacrats about the lack of diversity in Canadian medical schools.

The Canadian Federation of Medical Students, which represents more than 7000 students from 14 of 17 Canadian medical schools, sent delegates to hold meetings on Parliament Hill. The students spoke one-on-one with MPs, senators and bureaucrats about the fact that there is a lack of students in medical schools from low socio-economic backgrounds and rural areas.

Ijab Khanafer, vice president of communications for the federation, said the issue needs to be addressed for the benefit of Canadians.

“Canadian medical schools do not reflect the Canadian population,” she said. “Which is producing a population of physicians which does not represent the Canadian population.”

Khanafer said there is a shortage of family doctors in Canadian rural areas, but accepting more students from rural areas could potentially fix this problem. This is because medical students who come from rural areas are more likely return home to practice after graduating, she said.

However, Khanafer explained that studies done by the federation show that the medical school application process is biased towards urban, high-income students.

Khanafer called the economic divide between students “grossly disproportionate.” She said while 38 per cent of Canadians live on an income of under $40,000 per year, only 15 per cent of medical students come from these households. Families that earn over $120,000 per year make up only 5 per cent of the population, but 29 per cent of medical students.

Khanafer said some of this disparity comes from the fact that students from low socio-economic backgrounds may have to work during their undergrad, leaving less time to achieve high marks, participate in extracurricular activities and do volunteer work. These are all activities that medical schools look for in potential students.

The cost of applying to medical school can cost between $1000 and $2000, said Khanafer, adding financial strain or discouraging students from applying.

Darrell Lewis, a medical student at the University of Ottawa and delegate for the federation, said this issue is one that needs to be addressed.

“It’s an issue close to my heart,” he said.

Lewis said he comes from a rural area and a low socio-economic background, and he experienced difficulties when he applied to medical school.

Lewis said he had to hold a job and take extra classes each semester to finish his undergraduate degree. He said he didn’t have as much time to volunteer or participate in extracurricular activities, which made his application to medical school more difficult.

Danielle Rodin, a Toronto-native and medical student at the University of Toronto, said the issue compromises the state of medicine in Canada. She said that there is a lot of encouragement to go to a rural area, but it’s not something she would like to do.

Rodin said it’s necessary for the benefit of the profession and rural communities to advocate for rural students.

“They’re not in a position to advocate for themselves,” she said.

Khanafer said the federation would like to see a task force that could explore solutions. She said other countries provide interesting examples that could be used in Canada, such as subsidized application costs or programs that encourage medical schools to accept rural students.

Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj met with federation delegates to discuss potential solutions. He said he agrees with the ideas, but the larger issue of high tuition needs to be addressed first.

“We don’t have a system where post-secondary education is determined by ability and determination,” he said. “It’s determined by ability to pay.”

Wrzesnewskyj said the student group should bring their issues to a parliamentary committee that could analyze the issue and apply pressure on the government.

But Khanafer said the current goal of the federation is to raise awareness to the government and try to find solutions.

“(We want) a simple acknowledgment that this lack of diversity is actually a problem,” Khanafer said. “And we want them to commit to developing short-term and long-term solutions.”

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