A new federal program aimed at keeping health professionals in rural areas could help, but may end up being a short-term solution according the chair of the school of nursing at UNBC.
Martha MacLeod said the decision by the federal government to provide student loan forgiveness for nurses or family doctors working in rural communities may help lure new graduates to smaller communities, but must be accompanied with programs to retain them.
"What we found in our research on rural retention is that these kinds of loan forgiveness programs are very good for recruitment to rural areas, but they do not do much for retention of professionals in rural areas," MacLeod said.
She said often new graduates may decide to go to a small community to take advantage of the program but then head to a larger urban centre as soon as they can. That can lead to a churning effect, where small communities are constantly looking for new professionals.
"[New graduates might think] 'Oh goody, I can get rid of my loan and I'll have an exotic adventure, I'll go to Burns Lake and work for how many hours I need to work, then I'm gone," MacLeod said.
The federal program will be open to nurses and doctors in communities with less than 50,000 people. Although that excludes Prince George, it does mean many medical professionals working in other areas of northern B.C. will qualify.
Nurses and nurse practitioners will be able to access up to $4,000 a year in loan forgiveness for five years and doctors can receive up to $8,000 a year over five years.
Medical professionals must have started working in a designated rural community on or after July 1, 2011 and work there for at least a year. Application forms will be available in April.
The province already has a similar program to encourage doctors and nurses to move to rural communities by offering forgiveness on provincially funded loans. The B.C. program is also open to other medical professionals like midwives, pharmacists and audiologists.
"What they've done in B.C. is they've more clearly identified where the shortages are in rural areas," MacLeod said. "But to do that nationally is more difficult."
In order to attract professionals committed to staying in rural areas for a long time, MacLeod said there should be more opportunities for specific education geared at the challenges of rural practices. She also said retention is often more successful when community members are involved in the recruitment process in addition to the employer.