Association of International Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario


Canada's medical residency system is leaving some graduates in limbo

Posted by imdontario on April 4, 2018 at 11:15 PM


Robert Chu was a typical medical student in that he excelled at everything he did. He edited his high school newspaper and made it on the dean’s list in his undergraduate years. He volunteered to take notes for disabled students. After he got into medical school, he tutored hopefuls on the entry exam. “If somebody didn’t understand a concept, he was very good at explaining it to them in a manner that they could comprehend,” says his mother, Clara Chu. He was a skilled photographer and he loved to cook. Beef Wellington, macarons, homemade marshmallows. “Never anything simple,” his aunt, Cathy DeFazio, says with a laugh.


In his final year of medical school, it surprised everyone that he didn’t get a residency training spot, the important last stage of training to become a physician. He gained more job shadowing experience and reapplied the next year to a less competitive specialty. When he was again refused a spot, Rob Whyte, assistant dean of undergraduate medical education at McMaster University, took the rare step of personally writing him a strongly worded recommendation letter. “Unlike some other students where we are able to readily identify a concern in their file, Robert presents no such evidence and we remain collectively frustrated at his situation,” he wrote.


Robert, understandably, was the most frustrated of all, but he confronted the situation with the same resolve that had always worked for him. “He didn’t go halfway. It was all the way,” says Ms. DeFazio. He accessed and reviewed his reference letters – all glowing. He created flow charts of actions to take and people to contact. He wrote an impassioned letter explaining his plight and sent it to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, then-Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins and others. There were a few sympathetic replies, but in the end, there was little anyone could do for him. He died by suicide in September 2016.


Suicide can have many factors and eludes simple explanations. No one can presume what led Robert to his death, but the stress and frustration he felt must have been enormous. What’s more, the situation he experienced and was trying desperately to expose is happening to others: a growing number of medical school graduates are not getting a residency training position required to practice medicine in Canada. In other words, more and more students are completing four or five years of intensive, not to mention costly, medical school training – only to find they can’t proceed to the next stage.


The residency application process is complicated, but to describe it simply, medical students apply – via the Canadian Resident Matching Service, or CaRMS – for residency positions at universities across the country in one or more specialties of their choice. The program committees select those they wish to interview, and then they rank the candidates. The medical school graduates in turn rank the programs, and an algorithm spits out a “match.” For those who don’t get matched, they can apply again over the next week for the remaining programs, often family medicine programs in small communities.


In 2017, 68 final-year medical students went unmatched after the second round. Another 31 went unmatched in the first iteration but chose not to apply to the remaining programs, which likely didn’t include their specialties of choice. These numbers don’t include all the prior-year graduates who had failed to match in previous years and were trying again. By comparison, in 2005, only seven students who competed in the second round remained unmatched. If the trend continues, there will be an estimated 140 graduating students who go unmatched in 2021, and 330 if you include those who are re-applying for a second time, according to the Association of Faculties of Medicine of Canada (AFMC).


In simple terms, more medical school graduates aren’t getting residency positions because the number of positions available has been decreasing in relation to the number of graduating medical students. “The most common reason a student doesn’t get matched is just musical chairs,” explains Anthony Sanfilippo, associate dean of undergraduate medical education in the faculty of health sciences at Queen’s University. A decade ago, there were about 114 residency positions for every 100 Canadian medical students, with internationally trained graduates filling the remaining positions. Today, there are 103 positions for every 100 Canadian medical school graduates.


That may seem ideal, but many Quebec-based residency positions are available only to those who can speak French, and in 2017 more than 50 of these francophone positions remained unfilled. So there are actually fewer English-language positions than there are graduates, explains Kaylynn Purdy, vice-president of education for the Canadian Federation of Medical Students (CFMS). “It comes down to the fact that no matter how good you are, someone has to go unmatched,” she says.


In this game of musical chairs, the stakes are high. For many, going unmatched is world-shattering. As Robert wrote in a letter sent to journalists and others, “My diligent studies of medical texts, careful practice of interview and examination skills with patients, and my student debt in excess of $100,000 on this pursuit have all been for naught.” For unmatched graduates, there’s the confusion about why they weren’t selected and the sudden uncertainty of the future. Students can apply when residency positions open up again the following year, but in the meantime, “you have resigned your fate to a year of being in limbo,” explains Aaron, a graduate who went unmatched in 2017 and asked to use a pseudonym. Feelings of social alienation often exacerbate the distress. “You go from being with this cohort of people for years and being quite close to them and they’re all celebrating and moving on with their lives and you’re not,” explains Ms. Purdy. “I’ve heard from some unmatched students that their classmates stopped talking to them because they didn’t want to make the person feel bad by talking about their residency, or the fact that they’re buying a house.” Clara Chu describes the phenomenon concisely: “Facebook,” she says, angrily.


The crisis is worrying everyone – medical student organizations, the residency program directors and the undergraduate program administrators. “The deans have clearly identified the unmatched Canadian medical graduate as a top priority,” says Geneviève Moineau, president and CEO of AFMC. Ravi Sidhu, the postgraduate dean at the University of British Columbia’s medical school, says “the unmatched medical student numbers are incredibly disconcerting. I can imagine how stressful it is.”


Who is going unmatched – and why – is difficult to grasp. Certainly, choosing a more competitive specialty can increase one’s risk of not getting a residency. In Robert’s first year of applying, he was one of 96 candidates vying for 81 radiology residencies. If family medicine had been his first choice, he would have almost certainly been matched – there were 200 more family medicine residencies than there were candidates who made the specialty their top choice. In 2017, obstetrics-gynecology was an especially competitive specialty, with 113 Canadian medical graduates vying for 77 residency spots. Paul Foster was one of the 36 ob-gyn hopefuls who didn’t match. His first reaction was self-doubt. “Maybe I screwed something up,” he thought, but then he heard of friends who suffered the same fate. “They’re superb candidates. It wasn’t the people with red flags,” he says.


Some argue it’s students’ own fault for choosing very competitive specialties and not wanting to go where they’re needed – especially family medicine. But it’s difficult to know from one year to the next whether a specialty will be in demand. Provincial governments set the number of specialty training spots each year, based on changing population needs. And students’ preferences can swing considerably from year to year. Many years, for example, neurology has had a one-to-one ratio of applicants to spots; last year, there were positions for only 70 percent of applicants.


Most of those who go unmatched are usually willing to do family medicine – more than two-thirds of graduates unmatched in the first round apply again in the second round to the remaining positions in family medicine and in small communities. But, here’s the clincher: the second round is also open to Canadians who have trained abroad. Last year, 1,811 internationally trained Canadians applied and 411 got positions. The directors of these programs often prefer a foreign-trained doctor whose first choice is family medicine, as opposed to a Canada-trained doctor who is choosing family medicine as a Plan B. As Dr. Moineau says, “family medicine can no longer be seen as a fallback.”


Perhaps the most egregious aspect of the matching process is that those who go unmatched are discriminated against upon reapplying. In the one application review Robert Chu was able to obtain, his failure to match the year before was mentioned in the red-flag category. A decade ago, when only a handful of students didn’t get matched, there were often clear reasons, like a professionalism issue mentioned on their medical school record, for example. Today, even though many of those going unmatched are stellar students, the stereotype remains. While almost 97 percent of final-year students are matched, only 65 percent of prior-year grads get matched, despite the fact that most have improved their resumés with an extra year of job shadowing and research. With each additional application year, the chances of matching are lower.

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