By Ian Ross
In searching for some early returns stemming from last year's news of the proposed northern medical school, one has to look no further than the number of physicians who have hung out their shingle in Sudbury.
After last May's medical school announcement outlining Sudbury as the school's main campus, 18 physicians, mostly specialists, settled in the community by year's end.
It is one of the early spinoffs of the medical school, scheduled to open in 2003, that is immediately starting to pay dividends.
Sudbury Regional Hospital's physician recruitment and retention consultant says establishment of the medical school's main campus in Sudbury, the city's single-site hospital under construction, the quality of the northern lifestyle and some pot-sweetening incentives in goods and services for physicians after they arrive are listed as the major factors behind their recent success in luring doctors north.
"These should be treated as new small businesses in town," says Ginette Vezina. "And if they find everything they're looking for in this community, there's every reason to believe they'll be staying for the longer term."
Geoff Tesson, executive director of Laurentian University's health initiatives office, and one of the medical school's architects, has been most encouraged by the number of calls he has fielded from young to mid-career family physicians and specialists from different parts of Ontario contemplating a move to Sudbury to take advantage of the teaching and research opportunities.
"I'm just so impressed by the quality of students who want to come here from other jurisdictions," says Tesson, who also sits on the board of the Northeastern Ontario Medical Education Corp., operators of the family-medicine residence program.
"They're not coming here for the incentives, they're coming here because this is where a lot of the action is going to be," Tesson says.
After the province selected Sudbury as the main campus last May, Sudbury Mayor Jim Gordon was elated, not just with the prospect of a medical school remedying the north's chronic doctor shortage, but also with the vast potential for a huge medical infrastructure being built up around it.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg," says Gordon, who envisions the school creating a higher level of technology and telecommunications ability within the city by attracting software developers, pharmaceutical companies and a stable of top-flight researchers with government research dollars attached.
Identifying the spinoffs and commercial opportunities to be gained from the school as an economic driver to diversify the city's economy is a priority item, says Stephanie Harris, a City of Greater Sudbury economic development officer.
"This is a learning experience for us," says Harris, who is acting as a liaison for business development.
She plans to pull together a team of education, business and other community leaders to draft a strategy to take stock of what Sudbury can deliver before chasing down business prospects and studying success stories from other external medical school-related industries.
"We know we're not going to have a pharmaceutical company overnight, but we have to put a strategy in place in order to have a better chance of being able to develop some businesses.
"There could well be some business opportunities (locally) and we are exploring that now in working on a plan to figure out in our community what we can attract and what we can develop internally."
Harris suspects there might be some "crossover" companies within their midst in the information technology and electronics field that may offer some possibilities for product development.
E-learning will represent about 25 per cent of the school's curriculum, with medical students in remote communities relying on Internet link-ups for some of their hands-on medical and residency training. Therefore, the technology of distance learning "is something we should be talking about," says Ron Purcell, executive director of Laurentian Enterprises, when identifying what specific industry sectors the city should be concentrating on.
As a founding member of Mike Harris' economic diversification group, Purcell wants to visit other parallel medical school environments in Finland, Australia and the rural U.S. that have experienced some growth with their business component and to copy it.
"Right now we have this blank sheet of paper called the medical school, and we can't yet provide any specifics to interested parties," says Purcell.
But he believes there is a wealth of opportunities that can be developed towards laying the groundwork to eventually establish Sudbury as a major research centre.
"It will lock in our regional focus as a health centre," Purcell says. "It is going to make things like the attraction of doctors and our other efforts in the health-care field that much easier. That type of synergy is going to help us."
Tesson also has eyes on capitalizing on the research aspect to bring in more government grant dollars to Laurentian.
"There is a surprising amount of research going on," says Tesson, estimating about $10 million worth of medical research annually takes place in Sudbury through emerging local biotechnology firms like Neureka.
He expects that figure will increase from $25 million to $30 million within five years, based on the number of larger grants routinely given to researchers associated with a medical school.
"We are expecting the glow from the med school to attract more specialists who want to do research and give us a much better foundation to pitch in for large-scale grants," Tesson says.
Already getting a head start, Tesson says Laurentian University, Sudbury Regional Hospital and the Northeastern Ontario Regional Cancer Centre have submitted about $10 million in new grant money applications with the hope of eventually building a northern health research institute that would function as a home for the best researchers.
"It would give us the critical mass we can use to lever larger federal and provincial grants," says Tesson. "That's what this is really all about.
"It's recognizing that we have a nexus for a critical mass for both medical education, and also health research. We've got some pretty good stuff going around here. We just need to gel it and bring it into focus to lever more effectively, and I really believe that the onset of the medical school gives us a huge impetus to that task.
"I can see, almost smell, the possibilities there."