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How this expat doctor is helping bring doctors to Nova Scotia

Halifax family physician Dr. Sundeep Chohan is proof that there’s no one type of physician interested in practising medicine in Nova Scotia.Born and raised in London, England, he graduated from medical school at University College London in 1999. While practising family medicine in London, he became interested in conflict and catastrophe medicine, which took him to some of the world’s most troubled regions.

Alongside his work as special advisor to the U.K. military, Dr. Chohan worked for 15 years providing medical care in disaster zones and war-torn countries, including the Congo, Rwanda and Haiti. He has treated refugees, former child soldiers and survivors of genocide, war crimes and large-scale disasters.

But in November 2018, he traded his flak jacket for a raincoat. He moved to Halifax and hasn’t looked back.

“I was looking for something different,” he says. “I saw potential here and a lot of opportunities in terms of working with veterans, people with PTSD, trauma and addictions. In the U.K., family physicians don’t get that diversity.”

Dr. Chohan was part of the first wave of physician recruits from the U.K. that arrived in 2018, following a push by the provincial government to recruit U.K. physicians to address the persistent shortage of family physicians in Nova Scotia.

“I was the third doctor to come over and now we’re looking at a total of at least 40 family physicians and specialists here over the next few months,” Dr. Chohan says.

Difficult transition

The transition process for these doctors hasn’t been easy. They faced delays getting their medical licences, challenges with the immigration process and difficulties setting up their practices – and their lives – in Nova Scotia.

But the physicians themselves saw an opportunity to make the transition smoother for future recruits. Dr. Chohan started a private Facebook group in August 2018. Soon after, fellow U.K. expats Dr. Ade Akindele, who practises family medicine in Bedford, and family physician Dr. Satyanarayana Ketharaju, who works in Dartmouth, joined Dr. Chohan to help share information and advice with new and potential recruits through the Facebook group.

Their posts cover everything from immigration and licensing problems to the basics of living in Canada: getting a social insurance number, a mortgage, a bank account.

Doctors supporting doctors

“We created this support group because when we came here, we had nothing,” Dr. Chohan recalls. “It was a way of communicating to each other about our shared experience. We’re at almost 90 members now.”

He says the support group is boosting the province’s recruitment efforts, with over 30 physicians from the group already here, and up to 20 more on their way.

“In my practice alone, we’ve got three new U.K. doctors and they’ve taken on about 7,000 patients with a fourth new U.K. family physician starting next month. At Dartmouth Medical Centre, it’s about 9,000 patients for five new U.K. doctors, with a sixth starting next week.”

The reach of the Facebook group is stretching beyond its original audience of U.K doctors. “We have family physicians from Ireland, New Zealand, Canadian international medical graduates, and even Canadian family doctors who are working in other provinces,” says Dr. Chohan.

Connecting through social media

It’s also become a place where new-to-Nova Scotia doctors can make social and professional connections. “When people change countries, they’re giving up families and communities, leaving friends and people that they’ve known for decades behind, to start from scratch,” Dr. Chohan says.

He’s been lucky on that front – the doctors at his practice in Gladstone Medical in Halifax (and at Direction 180, where he also works) became valued colleagues immediately. “Other physicians aren’t so fortunate. You can go into your own silo here and it can become very isolating. Doctors need to get out and meet other doctors.”

Having physicians at the helm of the Facebook group also builds trust among physicians. “People are open and honest about what’s going on,” says Dr. Chohan. “Recruiters don’t touch upon the problems and issues. As a physician, you trust those who have been through the experience.”

Unresolved problems

While there has been some success on the licensing front, immigration problems remain unresolved for many of the first wave of recruited U.K. doctors.

In his own case, Dr. Chohan isn’t sure what his future holds. “Ideally, I’d like to stay but I’m still waiting for my permanent residency application. I’ve already spent over 18 months in various parts of the immigration process and my work permit runs out the middle of next year. You cannot make plans if you don’t have any immigration status.”

He was delighted to learn recently that future U.K. recruits will be placed on the faster online Express Entry scheme toward permanent residency. That process takes a few months, compared to the paper-based route his cohort was put on, which could take over two years.

In the meantime, Dr. Chohan says the physician-led Facebook group continues to foster meaningful connections for doctors and is helping them recruit more colleagues for their communities.

“It’s not just me—it’s word of mouth from all the doctors recruiting other doctors. That’s a powerful tool. I think it’s going to remain a big driver for recruitment for Nova Scotia.”

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