In a bid to grow its medical workforce, the Northwest Territories says it’ll begin supplying bursaries to students worth up to $10,000 each year.
On Monday, the territory’s health authority announced new bursaries for northern and Indigenous students enrolled in post-secondary programs related to health or social services.
Students can receive $2,500 per year if enrolled in a full-time diploma program, a sum that rises to $10,000 per year if pursuing a medical degree.
Eligible fields include midwifery, nursing, social services, medicine, and allied health (meaning a medical career that is distinct from nursing and medicine, such as diagnostics).
Dr Thomsen D’Hont, a family doctor in Yellowknife, said he was excited to see more funding to help people from the North pursue healthcare careers.
While the territory’s student financial assistance program already provides support, D’Hont said that can fall short for people pursuing medical degrees. While SFA covers 12 semesters of funding, a medical degree often involves 16 semesters of school.
“Those are usually the most expensive years if you’re pursuing a professional degree like medicine, where tuition is $15,000 to $30,000 a year,” he said.
“Where I went to med school, at UBC, it was about $20,000 a semester. So you’re doing four years of $20,000 a semester.”
Finances are a common barrier for Indigenous students from the North, said D’Hont, who has studied the topic. Other barriers include lack of access to the appropriate high school courses and mentors in their communities.
For years, the territory has struggled to staff its healthcare sector.
Last October, health minister Julie Green said the vacancy rate for nurses in the NWT was 25.7 percent. For family practitioners and specialists, the vacancy rate was 42 percent. As a consequence, service reductions have been common in many communities.
To be eligible for the new bursaries, applicants must agree to work in the Northwest Territories once they graduate.
A similar return-of-service program – providing funding in return for a commitment to work in the territory – was available to students until about 10 years ago, said D’Hont.
“Bringing it back is a really crucial step to supporting northerners who want to go that route,” he said.
If employment within the NWT’s healthcare system is not secured after completion of a program or residency, applicants may be expected to repay the funds.
Returning home can be a challenge, D’Hont said, after students create lives while studying down south.
“Having more supports that tie people to the Northwest Territories – including through a return-to-service agreement like this funding has – I think it’s one of many strategies you can use to address the recruitment and retention of doctors in the North,” he said.
The new bursary program was outlined in the GNWT’s 2021-24 human resources plan for its health and social services system.
Key goals in that plan include enhanced attraction and recruitment alongside supporting Indigenous and northern people to pursue careers in health and social services.
“Supporting students as they pursue their education in health and social services fields is one part of our broader efforts to support a sustainable and vibrant current and future workforce in the NWT,” NWT health authority chief executive Kim Riles was quoted as saying in a Monday news release.
Applications for the bursary open on May 15 and will be accepted year-round. The annual deadline to file an application is June 30, after which applications will be wait-listed and prioritized ready for new funding becoming available.
If you’re interested, you can find more about the program on the Practice NWT website.