Canadians studying medicine abroad must fly home for exam despite COVID-19

Amid the pandemic, a national medical governing body is being criticized for forcing Canadian medical students studying abroad to choose between health and pursuing a residency spot in Canada.

In an online petition, Canadians attending medical schools overseas asked the Medical Council of Canada to suspend an in-person exam scheduled to be conducted here in September. The knowledge and skill test is mandatory for those studying medicine abroad to gain admission to postgraduate training here.

The petition states that in addition to exposing themselves and Canadians to COVID-19 as a result of the international travel, the in-person test means mandatory self-quarantine for students upon arrival in Canada, and again after returning to their overseas school. As a result, they will lose at least four weeks of studies or clinical training toward their graduation just to take Canada’s National Assessment Collaboration exam.

“If students choose to disregard their university policies and miss four weeks of programming, they will not meet program requirements needed for graduation,” said the petition, which has collected almost 1,100 signatures.

“International medical students may be travelling from any region of the world in order to write this exam in a select few Canadian cities. Although students may take every precaution they can in preventing transmission of COVID-19, there is no way to guarantee this.”

The medical council said it is mindful of the candidates’ concerns and will continue to monitor the situation to ensure public health safety.

“Our priority during the COVID-19 pandemic is to ensure the safety of our candidates and all involved in our exams,” Kathryn Keyes, the council’s spokesperson, told the Star in an email.

“The intent in proceeding with the NAC examination, despite the ongoing pandemic, is to allow candidates to complete this mandatory qualifying exam in a safe environment and in a timely manner to support their educational and career progression.”

Keyes said the council has made the necessary accommodation to ensure public-health recommendations are heeded. To date, some 1,500 people have already applied for the test — Keyes said in past years a “significant portion” of candidates typically were already in Canada prior to the exam. Attempts are made to ensure everyone has a spot, she added.

Zeeshan Ahmad, who studied medicine at the University of Queensland and now works as a resident doctor in Australia, said he has reservations about travelling to Canada during the pandemic.

“To sit the exam in Canada, I must travel to Canada, exposing myself and others to the risk of coronavirus, quarantine for 14 days in Canada then come back and quarantine in Australia. Not to mention the added cost of flights and mandatory quarantine,” said the 31-year-old from Mississauga.

“Canadians who are residing in Australia without permanent residency on temporary work visas will not be allowed to re-enter Australia once they leave. Thus, they are not able to take the exam during the pandemic given the fear of losing their job and everything else they have worked so hard for.”

In response to the pandemic, U.S. authorities have suspended a similar clinical exam and offered alternative ways to assess and verify applicants’ skills if they are licensed in another country or through the medical schools they attend abroad for proof of clinical competency.

A Canadian medical student now in Ireland said many of the candidates are still abroad undergoing their final year in medical schools and those already in Canada are likely new immigrants trying to qualify to practise again. She can’t fathom why the council refused to move the test online.

“This year, there is no hands-on component. The exam will consist of a history and explaining verbally how you would examine a patient, followed by a question-and-answer period. So, what is the need to be there in person?” asked the woman from Stouffville, one of eight students interviewed by the Star. All but one asked for anonymity for fear of reprisals.

“MCC is happy to put all of us at risk of infection and exclude those of us with travel restrictions for their bottom line. They are making over three million dollars with this exam and although I am speculating here, money talks.”

The Canadian exam score has been used by residency programs to evaluate applicants but this year it is simply pass/fail, so the programs gain no insight into the candidates’ relative levels of competency, said another student.

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“We do not have many options. We take the exam and get to apply to the 2021 (residence) cycle, or we don’t take it and we can’t apply,” said the young woman from Southern Ontario, who has registered for the exam.

“So in addition to poor health, we would have our medical degrees and our future all put at risk for one exam we are being forced to attend during a global pandemic.”

The students asked for the exam to be suspended until self-quarantine is not required or that it be cancelled and struck from being a requirement this year. If not, a new online format should be offered, they said.

Nicholas Keung

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung