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Sudbury is now home to Canada’s first independent medical university

NOSM University delegates celebrated independence on April 1

Sudbury is now officially home to Canada’s first independent medical university.

Staff, students, faculty and invited guests celebrated the unveiling of NOSM University on April 1. 

Dr. Sarita Verma is NOSM U’s president, vice-chancellor and dean. By becoming an independent university, it brings some significant changes that the public might not notice right away.

The most significant change is that NOSM University won’t have to rely on Laurentian and Lakehead presidents to be the chair and vice-chair of the board, said Verma. The board will now have an appointed representative from the Lieutenant Governor, and the board will have elected opportunities for students, staff and faculty.

“We can also expand the board a little bit now, as we’ve been very focused on Thunder Bay or Sudbury, but I think we need (representation) from around Northern Ontario, because the issues are not just urban issues, and are very much rural and Indigenous issues.”

NOSM University is also forming its first senate. Previously, the university had a joint senate with representatives from Laurentian and Lakehead universities.

“In a university setting for us, we need to have the strong voices of our academic leaders to help guide it,” Verma said. “It shouldn't be me who's drafting the curriculum, or even our undergrad dean. It should be the faculty, it should be the teachers, it should be the students. We need people who are living and working and being part of the academic world.”

The senate would also be responsible for developing scholarships.

“I would like to see more scholarly activities, and the senate will drive that level of academic independence,” she said. “You can have a governor group that actually governs the fiscal responsibility and the due diligence, and the legal aspects, but you need that cauldron of thinkers and teachers and faculty. That's what the senate will be.”

The Northern Ontario School of Medicine was established in 2002 as a purpose-built solution to tackle the ongoing doctor shortage in Northern Ontario. With more than 780 medical doctor graduates and 692 residents having completed NOSM programs, it is estimated that 300 physicians are still needed in Northern Ontario to meet the immediate demand.

NOSM also has partnerships and collaborations with more than 500 organizations, in 90-plus communities, and more than 1,800 faculty dispersed across all of Northern Ontario, 

Recently, the province announced its medical education expansion. Ontario is introducing another 160 seats, with half of them going to Ryerson. Of the remaining 80 positions, NOSM University is getting 30 seats. Three universities in the province aren’t getting any new seats.

“This the first time ever that the OMA and the government have seen Northern Ontario as being more relevant; they recognize the inequity,” said Verma. 

More than 2,000 people have applied to NOSM University for the 64 spots they have available, which makes for a three percent success rate for applicants. 

“It’s huge for us, because we are the smallest medical school in Canada, but we're getting to be much more competitive.”

The province also announced it is creating more residency positions across the board. NOSM University will see an additional 41 positions.

Evidence shows that students who do their residency in Northern Ontario stay in Northern Ontario, Verma said.

“We know that 89 per cent of our students who did their residency here stayed here after,” she said. “So we need to expand our residency program. This isn’t going to be easy, but with Health Sciences North, Thunder Bay Regional, and our teaching hospitals, especially Sault Area Hospital, we will be able to do that.”

Dr. Verma has always dreamed that one day, they will be able to offer a tuition-free university, but fully admits it’s a pipe dream.

“I would love to have a tuition-free medical school, but honestly, I'd need about $250 million,” she said.

“We want our physicians to come from Northern Ontario, to train here and to stay in Northern Ontario,” she said. “The best way we can do that is to actually fund them.”

However, half of the school’s endowments are in “grave danger” right now, she said, “and we’d like Laurentian to give them back. We’d also like our endowments to be given back to us by Lakehead. These are not easy things to sort out, though. That’s $30 million that NOSM University could start off with.”

Endowments are a major asset for any medical university. Verma said she would like NOSM University to be a privately funded institution.

“I think if Northern Ontario really could see that, we will be a changemaker,” she said. “You get to come here because you're brilliant, and you're committed to care, compassion, kindness, and generosity, not because you're rich enough to afford extra tutoring. Those are the people I want to be my doctor.”

Until that happens, Verma is pleading with the public to help.

“We really need help,” she said. “It may seem that we’re actually funding physicians, but physicians are a huge contributor to the economic well-being of a community.”

She said every dollar earned by a physician translates into $6 into the community. They purchase homes, they buy groceries, they buy vehicles.

Connor Sonke is a fourth-year medical student and past-president of NOSM University’s student council.

He said while the most students will only see a change in the school’s name, “it really is going to make them feel more proud. 

“I think it’s going to be a really good thing for students,” he said. “I think students are excited about it. We’ve never recognized ourselves as Lakehead or Laurentian students, so going forward, this will just be easier."

The student council worked hard to ensure there are no lapses in any student services during the transition, he said. 

The student executive council is composed of 25 students, which means one in 10 students at NOSM is holding an executive position.

“We really represent the student body, and this council has stepped up to prepare our incoming class and our current students for the transition.”

Mayor Brian Bigger, who did not attend the event, extended his congratulations on the event through an email.

“On behalf of city council and all residents in Greater Sudbury, I would like to extend congratulations to NOSM University on officially becoming Canada’s first independent medical university,” he said. “Since 2005, the Northern Ontario School of Medicine has played an instrumental role in improving health equity in our region and has made significant contributions in our community through their distinctive and engaged model of medical education.

“NOSM University has always been a school created by Northerners, for Northerners and its values will always mirror who we are, where we live, and the needs of culturally and linguistically diverse communities. The City of Greater Sudbury is proud to support NOSM University, and we look forward to the continued success of the institution, its graduates and faculty for many years to come.”