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The doctor is in

Nationally renowned program preparing residents for rural practice

By Michelle Osmond

When the area he grew up in was hit hard by Hurricane Igor in 2010, Dr. Desmond Whalen went home to help in the storm’s aftermath.

The native of Caplin Cove, on the north shore of Conception Bay, N.L., saw people in his community struggle to fill prescriptions or visit their doctors because the road had been washed out. It was then and there he knew that delivering health care in a rural community was the path the future doctor wanted to take.

“I had my mind made up,” he said. “I knew I had to go into rural medicine somewhere. I saw too much that day not to. And whether it’s a hurricane or not, there are a lot of health concerns for people living in rural Newfoundland. So that’s where I want to be.”

When he was accepted into medical school at Memorial in 2013, working in a rural area was his number one, and only, choice.

“The decision for me to go rural for my training was never really a decision at all, there was never an option to do anything else.”

Community inspired

doctor sitting on hospital bed with medical equipment in the background
Dr. Desmond Whalen chose Memorial because of its reputation for rural training.
Photo: Dr. Jennifer Mercer

With its first-rate programming, the Faculty of Medicine was ready for him.

The faculty’s doctor of medicine program provides a spiral curriculum with rural content interwoven with clinical skills, incorporating a narrative approach that allows students to learn about the people and places of Newfoundland and Labrador.

As an MD student, Dr. Whalen did community rotations in rural areas, outreach with rural high school students to encourage them to go into medicine, research in rural recruitment and retention, and signed on for as many rural clinical electives as he could.

Because it is “community inspired,” the faculty has always made rural medicine training a priority, says Dean Margaret Steele.

“It is part of our commitment to do even more to engage with and listen to the people and communities we serve, connecting our research, teaching and learning and service priorities with their health needs and concerns,” she said.

Residency training

The faculty’s postgraduate residency training program in family medicine is a unique training model that includes stream sites in Newfoundland and Labrador, ranging from the eastern, central and western regions, as well as the NorFam training centre in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Lab., and the Nunafam residency in Nunavut.

These locations allow residents to complete the majority, if not all, of their training in a particular geographical area. The Rural Medical Education Network, a virtual component of the Faculty of Medicine, oversees the development and co-ordination of the distributed education activities across regional training sites.

The Faculty of Medicine also has the best track record in the country at training doctors for careers in rural areas.

Twillingate, N.L., is one of the Faculty of Medicine’s teaching sites as part of the Rural Medical Education Network.
Photo: Submitted

Recently, and for the sixth time, the Society of Rural Physicians of Canada recognized the faculty with its Keith Award, given annually to a Canadian postgraduate medical program that has excelled in producing rural doctors.

Memorial’s average for the years from 2007-17 was 45 per cent; the national average was 22 per cent.

Rural opportunities

The faculty also works hard at encouraging new physicians to practise in non-urban areas.

It partners with Eastern Health, the largest integrated health organization in Newfoundland and Labrador, to hold educational retreats in rural areas of the province. Workshops cover medical topics and procedures, but also offer resident doctors the opportunity to meet and connect with local people.

“If Memorial can be the avenue to train students and residents in rural places, the communities will draw them back,” said Dr. Whalen. “It’s the originality of the people, and the culture of the places that keeps graduates there 10 years out and longer.”

For those looking to live, train and work in a rural area, Memorial is ideally located – Newfoundland and Labrador is perched along the eastern-most region of North America with more coastline than anywhere else in Canada, more than 29,000 kilometres to be exact. It’s home to lush forests with winding trails and unspoiled landscapes; and its charming communities and coves welcome millions of seabirds, majestic whales and dramatic icebergs each year. The opportunity to embrace rural living is part of the Memorial advantage. Learn more about the doctor of medicine program or graduate programs offered at the Faculty of Medicine.

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