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Northwest may get its share of medical school (2/02)

By Ian Ross Based on howls of protest from northwestern Ontario over the controversial format of the proposed northern medical school, there appears to be some movement afoot to grant Thunder Bay a greater role in the project, says one of its archite

By Ian Ross

Based on howls of protest from northwestern Ontario over the controversial format of the proposed northern medical school, there appears to be some movement afoot to grant Thunder Bay a greater role in the project, says one of its architects.

Geoff Tesson, Laurentian University's director of health initiatives, says there might be some room for adjustments to the format, within the provincially set-out guidelines, that could be acceptable to all.

"There are a number of imaginative things we can do to make sure that the school is operated on a basis that makes sense for all the regions in the north," says Tesson, who declined to comment on specifics of some ongoing confidential discussions.

"There's room within the terms of reference to construct a solution and that's what we're doing."

What was heralded by northern politicians last spring as a historic social and economic development event to address the region's chronic doctor shortage, has degenerated into an east-versus-west squabble. While there is no argument over the need to establish a medical school to train and retain doctors, how it will be done remains an issue that has divided community leaders who lobbied vigorously for the initiative in the first place.

Tesson, a Laurentian professor, sits on the provincially appointed implementation committee consisting of Kirkland Lake councillor Linda Cunningham, Sudbury Mayor Jim Gordon, and Thunder Bay councillor Rene Larson.

In collaborating with business consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers, the committee will help develop the business plan, outline the school’s vision and keep the public informed of the project's progress. They expect to file a business plan with the provincial health ministry in mid-to-late March.

Tesson says the options available under those guidelines are "still a matter of deep discussion, (but) we talk regularly with our university colleagues in Thunder Bay, and it has been very fruitful. And I assume if they're happy with the outcome then everyone will be happy with the outcome."

Under the format announced last May by Tony Clement, health minister, the medical school will begin admitting 55 undergraduates in 2004 with 20 of those students heading to Lakehead University to finish their final two years of clinical training in 2006. The rest will remain at Laurentian to complete their education.

But some city officials say it was a slap in the face to northwestern leaders who assumed the format would be closer to the original dual campus model, known as the Northern Ontario Rural Medical Schools (NORMS) proposal, as devised by officials at both universities and endorsed by northern mayors.

Larson, the northwest's lone voice on the implementation group, is pushing from within for at least 20 students to pursue their entire four-year education at Lakehead.

"That option would be necessary for faculty to be located here, and that means a different status for Lakehead toward the NORMS proposal.." Larson says.

Vilified within his hometown for his participation in the planning group, Larson says that opposition seems to diminish the further one goes out from Thunder Bay.

Ron Nelson, president of the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association says the medical school format does nothing to enhance regional health-care needs. In establishing a united front, the association has launched a Web site and hired consultants to lobby the province to make the medical school more of a joint initiative.

Nelson says northwestern Aboriginal groups were never brought to the table and the planning group has not fully exploited what federal leveraging dollars might be available through Native programs, which could be incorporated into the cost of a dual campus.

Kirkland Lake's Linda Cunningham, a northeastern voice on the management team, empathizes with Thunder Bay, but cautions that it is too early in the information-gathering stage to making final judgments.

"If we can provide a medical school that meets the needs of the north that’s fully accredited and is not outrageously expensive, then of course (we would be in) favour of it. We're not endorsing anything yet.

"I understand how they feel. In northeastern Ontario we feel in the district of Temiskaming that we're being overlooked and all the opportunities are going to North Bay, Sudbury and Timmins. But at the same time, as a municipal politician, I know we can’t provide all things to all people.

The implementation management committee hopes to find more conclusive answers once a round of public consultation meetings takes place.