Saudi medical trainees allowed to stay in Canada, for now

More than 1,000 medical trainees from Saudi Arabia have been told they can stay in their Canadian positions for a while longer, bringing relief to teaching hospitals and universities that have come to depend on them. 

The Saudi medical residents and fellows received news from Saudi authorities Monday that they would be “allowed to continue in their present training programs until such time as an alternative assignment could be arranged,” Dr. Andrew Padmos, chief executive of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, said Tuesday morning. 

A diplomatic spat between Saudi Arabia and Canada erupted earlier this month when Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland called for the release of jailed Saudi women’s rights activists.

The dispute has escalated with a series of measures taken by the Saudis that include recalling students — including medical students and residents — to Saudi Arabia.

‘Human cost’

The reprieve for medical trainees does not include the 8,000 or more Saudi university students who are enrolled in other programs across Canada. They are not being permitted to continue their studies at Canadian universities. 

Padmos said Tuesday that while “the sword still hangs over” the medical trainees, there is a general sense of relief among everyone involved.

“The human cost and the chaos caused by their abrupt recall to Saudi Arabia was really mounting and most distressing to everybody concerned,” he said, noting that “13 or 14” of Canada’s 17 medical schools and their associated teaching hospitals have Saudi trainees.

‘Integral parts of our health system’

There are 1,053 medical trainees in Canadian posts supported through the scholarship program at the Saudi Arabian Cultural Bureau in Ottawa, Padmos said. 

The trainees tend to have “five or six years of post-MD training under their belt” and are in Canada doing clinical practice or advanced research, he added.

“The [Saudi] trainees are not just students who are here for a year or two and kicking around our universities,” Padmos said. 

“They’re actually working in our hospitals, looking after our relatives and our community and are really very integral parts of our health system and health workforce.”

Saudi authorities did not give the medical trainees a specific deadline by which they have to leave Canada, but it appears they will be allowed to wrap up residencies and fellowships, said Paul-Emil Cloutier, president and chief executive of HealthCareCAN, which represents Canadian hospitals. 

“[The email] points out that they need to be looking elsewhere, but you know it’s not always easy to find a posting,” Cloutier said. 

“A posting could take between 12 and 18 months before you actually find it. So if I’m in my fourth year and I still have a fifth year, I think that my choice will be to remain where I am in Canada.” 

Some medical trainees have already left the country, Cloutier said, leaving hospitals scrambling to try to bring them back or fill the empty spots. 

“The situation is very fluid,” he said. 

With files from CBC’s Yvette Brend and The Canadian Press 

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