HALIFAX — The pending departure of almost 60 Saudi Arabian medical residents because of a diplomatic spat will cause surgical delays over the coming months, says an official with the Nova Scotia Health Authority.
Dr. Mark Taylor, executive medical director for the central zone, said "minor delays" of up to a few weeks would likely occur for scheduled surgeries as health officials look to fill gaps created by the departures.
"Patients who have been waiting for scheduled surgery, I would say there may be delays of up to a few weeks as a result of this but I don't think it will be more than that," said Taylor in an interview Monday. "I don't think the delays are likely to be major and probably we will be able to carry on because everybody takes up the slack."
About 1,000 Saudi residents and fellows in Canada were called back to the kingdom when it abruptly suspended diplomatic relations over a government tweet that criticized the Saudis for the arrest of female social activists.
Taylor said the health authority, Dalhousie University, and the provincial Health Department are in the process of determining specific needs in surgical areas facing acute problems including orthopedic, cardiac and neurosurgeries. Internal medicine is another area where "we have some problems" Taylor said.
According to the Dalhousie University website there are 59 Saudi physicians working to complete their residency at the Halifax school, although the health authority said in an email the number is 58.
Spokesman John Gillis confirmed there are 24 Saudi residents who work in surgical services including 10 of 23 residents in orthopedics and four of nine in cardiac surgery.
Gillis said those numbers include pediatric surgery so some of the residents would be primarily based at the IWK Children's Hospital rather than at facilities administered by the Nova Scotia Health Authority.
Taylor said it's possible people can be hired to work in the problem areas, although new trainees won't be introduced into the system until a new cohort arrives for the new academic year which begins July 1.
"Some of those trainees were very senior in their training, so some of them were providing highly sophisticated specialized medical services and those obviously can't be replaced with just anybody off the street," Taylor said.
He said some residents could prove very difficult to replace in the short term, which means more work over that period for local attending surgeons and other specialists.
Complicating matters, Taylor said, is that provinces with much larger medical schools such as Quebec and Ontario will also be looking to hire new health professionals.
"Many other Canadian health care training facilities are in the same position. McGill (University) and the University of Toronto are both in even worse situations than us so they will be trying to hire these people as well."
Medical residents have been told to return to Saudi Arabia by Aug. 31.
In an email, Health Department spokeswoman Tracy Baron confirmed a plan is being developed should the residents depart.
"All the parties are working hard to mitigate against those impacts, and it's too early to know what the clinical requirements and costs may be," said Baron.
The residencies, through Dalhousie's medical school, are funded by Saudi Arabia, and Health Minister Randy Delorey is on record as saying Nova Scotia can handle the losses.
Doctors Nova Scotia has also said the province could handle any initial problems. It pointed out that there didn't seem to be a direct impact on the recruitment and retention of doctors and it said many of the Saudis would have moved on to practice in other countries once their training was completed.
Taylor said the province had already previously announced that there will be 15 new residency positions added beginning next summer.
"So that will go some ways to dealing with this problem actually, since many of those positions will be taken up by new Canadian residents entering the system," he said.
Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press