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Project meant to draw physicians to rural Alta. has made 1 successful placement: government

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A seven-month-old provincial pilot program to attract doctors to rural Alberta is already falling short of its goal, forcing the government to reshape it.

The United Conservative government’s Rural Education Supplement and Integrated Doctor Experience (RESIDE) program was announced in February. At $2 million a year, it aims to recruit family doctors to work in rural communities.

RESIDE was supposed to place 20 new doctors a year for three years. Less than a year in, only one doctor has been hired, the Alberta government says.

The program offers new medical residents up to $100,000 to practice in a rural community with a three-year commitment. Approved physicians were slated to begin practicing in their new communities in the fall of this year.

Sarah LeRoux was one of 18 doctors to apply to the program during the two-month application period. She is also the only doctor whose application was approved. She starts her residency in Cold Lake, Alta., in January of 2023.

Recognizing his department hasn't seen "full uptake," Health Minister Jason Copping said several changes will be made to RESIDE as a result.

His office confirmed that eligibility would be opened up for nearly all rural communities, and positions would be offered to experienced doctors up to five years out of their residencies, as well as recent graduates. Doctors will also be given a shorter term option of two years, and the application window will be expanded until the pilot’s end in 2024, or until the $6 million in funding runs out.

"The first year was really a learning experience for us," commented RESIDE's program director, Emeka Ekwosimba.

He’s hopeful the changes to the program will make it more attractive.

“We are hopeful we are now going to get more applicants,” Ekwosimba said. “Because we’ve listened to them and made the changes they want.”

Fox Creek, more than 250 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, was one of the towns on the initial list of eligible communities. It does not have a full-time family doctor; the town’s 1,800 residents are serviced by one of four locum doctors who practice there for a few weeks or a few months at a time.

Mayor Sheila Gilmour said she had been excited to hear the town would be one of the 15 communities initially included in the pilot project. While the locum physicians have served the community well, she says a permanent doctor would benefit the community by giving residents consistency.

"People who have chronic illnesses would like to be able to see the same family doctor always," Gilmour said.

Gilmour believes the proposed changes to the program are mostly positive, but worries more towns means more competition for Fox Creek.

"How do we attract someone to want to choose our community over the next one down the road?"

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Jeremy Thompson 

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