University of Alberta nursing and medical students are in northern Alberta this weekend to better understand the needs of small communities when it comes to health care.

Let’s Go Rural is an annual program organized by the Alberta Rural Health Professions Action Plan to get more students interested in practicing in smaller communities. 

The organization has been active for over 30 years and works to maintain an accessible health workforce close to home for rural Albertans. 

Anique Tardif is a second-year nursing student at the U of A and will be helping organize the event at Sacred Heart Community Health Centre in McLennan, Alta.

Her passion for going into nursing stems from her love of community. 

“I just like helping people, I always have, and I always will,” she said in an interview. 

A line of students
Let’s Go Rural is an annual program organized by the Alberta Rural Health Professions Action Plan to get more students interested in practising in smaller communities. (Submitted by Raegan Sather)

Health-care professionals from McLennan and Falher will assist students in developing skills like IV starts, casting, airway management, and suturing.

The hope is that the students will forge bonds with the community and return to work after graduating. 

Originally from Peace River, Tardif joined the program in 2022 when her group was in Elk Point and St. Paul. 

“I got a bunch of my peers to come with [me] because it’s just such a great opportunity,” she said.

“You create connections when you’re there, you get to see the health-care professionals, the facility, and you get to do kind of a bunch of skills.”

Tardif said as someone bilingual, she also appreciates the opportunity to experience Francophone culture in the various communities she can visit.   

Filling a need 

Shanda Berns is with the Alberta Rural Health Professions Action Plan and said the organization has been hosting the event for eight years with a continued need for connecting students in urban centres to rural communities. 

“There’s no surprise that rural sites and rural communities are really hurting for health care staff,” said Berns, senior manager of community development and engagement with the organization. 

Minister of Health Adriana LaGrange said that the province is facing staffing challenges like other jurisdictions across Canada. 

“We know we need more doctors, nurses and other health professionals and support the ones we already have. Alberta is not alone trying to deal with this challenge – it is an issue facing the entire country,” she said in a statement to CBC News.

As part of the 2023 budget, the provincial government has put $2 billion toward the primary care system in an attempt to increase access to family physicians and nurse practitioners.

Charlotte Taillon, ministry senior press secretary, noted that since the start of 2023, 125 physicians have started or are due to begin practising in rural areas across Alberta.

Berns said giving students experience in rural areas might help in recruiting health-care workers to areas outside the major urban centres.

“There is a concept of ‘grow your own’ … through our research, we have learned very clearly that rural students and just rural individuals are more likely to practice rural post-grad if they grew up in that setting,” Berns said. 

“But there’s also a very large appetite for urban students to go and practise in rural settings, and that’s part of what we do is provide exposure to those rural communities.” 

Berns said as the program evolves, a key element will be to gather data on the program’s impact on rural medical staffing levels.

“We need that longitudinal study to really see the effect of these events,” she said.

“But that information comes over time, right? So we have to be able to run an event, be able to follow them and have an alumni program, and then see where they actually chose to practice.”

Tardif said she wants to return to her hometown of Peace River. 

“I just love my small town, so I want to go back home and do rural nursing.”

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