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Ontario woos queer MDs

Will US docs turn healthcare pink?

Ontario needs more doctors, and the province is hoping to tap into a potential wellspring to fill the crunch: queer physicians practising in the US.

Health Force Ontario (HFO), a new program to recruit doctors from other jurisdictions, lists among the program’s goals, “strategic marketing and advertising to target groups of health professionals, eg… lesbian gay bisexual transgender (LGBT) physicians in the United States.”

The new program, which officials could not put a price on, will promote Canada’s and Ontario’s records on queer rights, notably same-sex marriage, with the hope of luring physicians from the US to set up shop here, even though their income might take a hit.

“Here in Ontario we have what we call a values opportunity,” says David Spencer, a spokesperson for Health And Long-term Care Minister George Smitherman. “There are some that perhaps in the US are working in certain jurisdictions where diversity is not necessarily a hallmark and Ontario has something to offer in that way.”

But the ministry is careful to avoid casting aspersions on other jurisdictions’ records directly.

“By and large, we’re talking about folks who are living in the US who are just uncomfortable. We’re not talking about people who are persecuted, and we’re not making that accusation,” Spencer says.

HFO has set no recruitment targets.

But while some stakeholders praise the government for raising the visibility of queer professionals, some worry that the government is resting on its laurels on queer issues, and that the government has to do more to attract queer immigrants than tout past accomplishments.

Louie Chan, coordinator of GLBT Medical Students Of Canada, says that queer doctors still face workplace discrimination and other barriers to full participation in Ontario society.

“The government could do more to promote equality among GLBT physicians in the workplace,” he says. “For example, it can work with various hospital administrative officers or public health units to come up with antidiscrimination or antihomophobia policies.”

He also warns that queer doctors thinking about moving to Ontario will want to see the province take action to improve the health of LGBT Ontarians in general.

“They could provide more funding to research and eliminate the health disparity of the GLBT community,” he says. “Another example would be to relist sexual reassignment surgery coverage. It used to be covered under OHIP, but was delisted by the [former Conservative premier Mike] Harris government.”

For now, however, the HFO’s attempts to woo queer doctors are limited to trumpeting Ontario’s achievements and opportunities, building on earlier activities by the health ministry.

Smitherman, an openly gay man, has attended the Gay And Lesbian Medical Association annual conference for the last two years (in San Francisco and Montreal), promoting Ontario as a queer-positive employer.

HFO plans to continue promoting Ontario at the conferences, and on its website, which provides job listings and touts the benefits of living in Ontario.

As yet, they can’t point to any successes in its queer marketing strategy.

“We’re just barely off the ground,” says transition leader Brad Sinclair. “We’ve only been able to do a little bit of marketing, but any recruitment for a physician must be a 12 to 18 month drive. We’re at the stage of following-up on expressions of interest.”

Sinclair says HFO may choose to market Ontario in other media, but no plans have been made to do so at this point.

Physicians who are successfully wooed will still have to negotiate the process of immigrating to Canada with Immigration Canada, but HFO will provide support services to applicants and help them to settle once they’ve arrived.

“There’s a whole host of things that have to happen,” Sinclair says. “Their qualifications have to be submitted to the regulatory college. Their certifications have to be accepted. We’d go even lower and, for example, if they have a partner who might be a teacher, we’d help them find a position. We’re here to help move that forward.”

HFO is also hoping it can attract doctors to settle in underserviced and rural areas of the province, and is encouraging queer physicians to practice outside Toronto.

“There’s enough diversity all over Ontario,” Spencer says. “We’re trying to make sure that these people know the full breadth of possibilities and options of what lies before them.”