Hamilton hospitals scramble to 'fill gaps' as departure of Saudi medical residents looms

Hamilton hospitals are scrambling to put in place contingency plans to deal with the looming departure of 153 Saudi medical residents.

But they are assuring the public that patient care will not be compromised despite the significant role residents play in delivering patient care.

The students are caught up in the diplomatic tussle which took a turn for the worse on Sunday when Saudi Arabia suspended diplomatic ties with Canada and expelled the Canadian ambassador. The moves came  after Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and her department issued tweets criticizing the arrest of social activists and asking for their immediate release.

Among the measures taken by the Saudis was recalling students — including medical students and residents — to Saudi Arabia.

Dr. Michael Stacey, Professor and Surgeon in Chief at Hamilton General Hospital said the departure of the students will have “a big impact” on healthcare delivery here.

“Losing that number of postgraduate residents and fellows has an impact and obviously we have to look at existing resources and then, if needs be, additional resources to help to fill those gaps,” Stacey told CBC Hamilton.

“They’re very valuable members of our workforce and provide a very good service to both Hamilton Health Sciences and St. Joseph’s Hospital here in Hamilton.

They form an integral part of clinical service, delivering service to patients, so definitely we’d be impacted by that.”

Losing that number of postgraduate residents and fellows has an impact.– Dr. Michael Stacey

Stacey said the Saudi students represent about 15 per cent of the postgraduate workforce at Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS) and St. Joseph’s Hospital.

The residents work a minimum of 40 hours weekly, and often more with their on-call commitments, he said.

“Some of them come for shorter periods but overall it’s about the equivalent of 126 fulltime workers,” Stacey said, adding that their departure would “have a big impact for sure.”

Chief executive officer at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton, Dr. Tom Stewart said they always have plans in place should there be a crisis, but he admits that the current situation is a unique one. (John Rieti/CBC)

‘We remain hopeful that a resolution will be found’

McMaster University says it is supporting the Saudi students during this time of uncertainty.

While they remain hopeful that a resolution will be found, a spokesperson for the university said it  also understand this is a time of great uncertainty and stress for students.

“It is a fluid situation and we are working with fairly limited information, but the university is doing its best to provide them with help,” communications director Gord Arbeau said in a e-mailed statement.

153 Saudi students at McMaster University completing medical residencies at Hamilton hospitals are caught up in a diplomatic spat between Canada and Saudi Arabia. (McMaster University )

Stacey agrees that the situation has had a big impact on the students, who were still on the job on Thursday.

“Obviously they’re in training and this impacts both their training but also has a big impact on their families as well,” he said.

“The concern is should this requirement for them to return to Saudi remain in force, then obviously that is going to take more of a toll on them as this month continues on.”

Contingency measures still being worked out

Stacey said should the residents be removed, the biggest concern is to make sure that there is a continuity of care for patients.

“We’re trying to gage the impact and the areas that would be most impacted and then we’re working on contingency measures to ensure that patients can continue to get good care and that’s obviously a key priority at this point,” Stacey said.

“In the next couple of days we’ll have a clearer picture of where we’ll have most impact and then we’ll be working with both McMaster University and St. Joseph’s Healthcare to work out how we’re going to manage that.”

Patient care remains a ‘key priority’

In the face of the uncertainty, Stacey is assuring that patient care will not be compromised, even though he could not give specifics about how they would make up for the shortfall on medical personnel.

“We definitely will continue to provide care to our patients, so I think we can give patients the reassurance that will happen. How we do it and exactly the process I can’t give you specifics at this time, but we absolutely can give that assurance to patients,” he said.

Dr. Michael Stacey says Saudi medical residents are very valuable members of the workforce and provide a very good service to both Hamilton Health Sciences and St. Joseph’s Hospital. (Submitted)

We will rise to the challenge

At St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton, a similar situation exists.

Chief executive officer Dr. Tom Stewart said they always have plans in place should there be a crisis, but he admits that the current situation is a unique one.

“This is new to us . . . but there is no doubt we are going to have to come up with some contingency plans which will disrupt our normal workflow, but will not disrupt the good care that we give to patients,” he told CBC Hamilton.

“I don’t think that there is risk to patients who show up at the hospital in terms of getting great care, but there will be a trickle down effect. Our academic physicians will likely have to do more things that residents were doing. So there will be a ripple down effect across the healthcare workers but other people will step up to the challenge and do the job that these individuals were doing.

We have to be, in healthcare, always planning for the unexpected and this is an example of an unexpected that may be more prolonged than usual. So it will be a challenge but we will rise to it,” Stewart added.