CBU forging ahead with medical school plans despite concerns by local doctors

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Cape Breton University is pushing ahead with plans for a new medical school in Nova Scotia despite concerns by local doctors that they are too busy to take on new teaching duties.

The doctors say they are already overworked and understaffed and CBU has not shown them a clear plan for potential instructors at the medical campus that’s set to open in a little more than a year.

“As it stands right now, if we do not have more bodies, my department cannot take on more learners,” said Dr. Katharine Kellock, a Sydney pediatrician who runs a busy private practice and already trains visiting residents from Dalhousie University’s medical school.

“It’s just full stop, we can’t do it.”

Kellock said Cape Breton doctors already train 15 medical residents a year and CBU plans to enrol 30 new medical students annually, which will have a compounding effect until some start to graduate.

There just aren’t enough hours in the day to take on new teaching duties at CBU as well, she said.

In addition, there are other questions about how doctors, especially specialists, will be accommodated.

Questions remain on compensation, patient care

Kellock said her practice involves adolescents, some of whom have autism and some of whom need to have discussions on sexual health. None of them would be comfortable in a room with a doctor and a handful of medical students, she said, and her clinic only has one examination room, so she would have to travel to CBU to train doctors.

Discussions about compensation for travel time have so far been unsatisfactory and her patients would be left without a doctor while she was away at CBU, she said.

Last fall, CBU’s associate vice-president of academic and research Tanya Brann-Barrett said the university recognizes that many local doctors are already working at capacity.

That followed concerns a year ago voiced by local doctors about their ability to contribute to the school while already overworked due to patient loads and the ongoing shortage of family physicians and specialists.

Other doctors expressed similar concerns even before that. 

Kellock said she and her colleagues believe a new medical school, if successful, will eventually help ease the local physician shortage.

A group of people stand on green grass in front of a fenced-off construction zone containing gravel and several concrete and wooden structures in the back.
Cape Breton University president David Dingwall (centre) stands with a group of people in front of the new medical school building under construction in this April 30, 2024, file photo. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

“We really want the program to succeed, because we know that training people in Cape Breton leads to retention of people here. But we’re very worried that this is just going to collapse, because they’re not engaging in the degree of planning that we think needs to happen.”

Kellock said she and her colleagues have repeatedly asked for detailed plans, with no luck.

“We feel like we’re being set up for failure and then it’s going to be us that’s blamed, when it’s really that the planning hasn’t been done and the conversations haven’t happened that would lead to this being successful.”

CBU president David Dingwall said the university is on track to open its new medical school in the fall of 2025.

He said the doctors have valid concerns, but operational funding for the school was just announced by the Nova Scotia government two weeks ago, so detailed plans for recruiting staff will roll out in the next few months. 

A balding man with glasses, a dark suit, white shirt and red tie speaks at a microphone.
Cape Breton University president David Dingwall says CBU will not have to put a pause on the opening of its new medical school the way UPEI did earlier this year. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Kellock said the medical school is about to begin taking applications from students, while construction of the building is just starting and instructors are worried about their own ability to commit time to teaching.

“We just think it’s unrealistic to have that as a start date with where we’re at from a human resource and infrastructure perspective,” she said, adding the University of Prince Edward Island recently put a pause on its new medical school to do more detailed planning.

Dingwall rejected any suggestion that CBU might have to push back its opening date by a year the way UPEI did.

“No, no, no, no, no, get that out of your God damn head, ” he said. “We’re not going to delay the opening of the med school. That’s just not [in] the cards.”

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