Whoever wins this election will have to find a way to capitalize on a potentially enormous untapped resource: the growing number of internationally educated doctors, nurses and other health professionals

In a few days, Canadians will go to the polls to cast their ballots in the first federal election held amid a pandemic.

Yet despite the presence of mask-wearing, socially distanced candidates, canvassers and campaign workers, the critical shortage of health-care workers and solutions to this shortage have not been at the forefront of the campaign.

The pandemic has shone a harsh light on our health and long-term care systems. Health-care workers are exhausted and burned out. Large numbers of nurses are expected to leave or retire. Long-term care homes continue to struggle to attract and retain staff, and our hospitals don’t have enough nurses to meet care demands.

Clearly, as we recover from the pandemic, and as the health-care needs of our aging population are expected to grow, we need to ensure that we will have the resources — especially the human resources — to deliver quality care over the long term.

Canada goes to great lengths to recruit the most highly skilled and educated immigrants, including doctors, nurses, technicians and other health-care specialists who earned their professional qualifications in other countries. Yet we are failing dismally to capitalize on this valuable resource.

The shortage of trained health-care professionals was a concern long before the pandemic, and it is not unique to Canada. The World Health Organization is projecting a worldwide shortfall of about 18 million health care workers by 2030. In April 2020, Statistics Canada reported that in the previous year, about 40,000 Canadian health-care jobs were unfilled — at a time when our population is aging, our national birth rate is declining and our labour force is shrinking.

It is therefore both disturbing and frustrating that Canada is failing to take advantage of a potentially enormous untapped resource: the growing number of internationally educated health professionals who come to Canada with skills to offer and the intention of contributing those skills.

Canada goes to great lengths to recruit the most highly skilled and educated immigrants, including doctors, nurses, technicians and other health-care specialists who earned their professional qualifications in other countries.

Yet we are failing dismally to capitalize on this valuable resource. According to Statistics Canada, nearly half of these health professionals are either unemployed or working in jobs that do not use their health-care expertise. It’s clear that many would welcome the opportunity to put their skills to work: Media reports last winter stated that more than 2,600 internationally educated health professionals had registered on the Ontario Health Workforce Matching Portal — yet only a handful were placed.

Internationally educated health professionals need timely access to processes and systems that will help them demonstrate that they have the knowledge and skills to meet Canadian health-care standards of practice. Challenges in doing so can include complex, long, expensive licensure processes; difficulties accessing required residency spaces for doctors and clinical placement hours for nurses; and lack of supports to help them integrate into the Canadian system. Many never return to their professions after immigrating to Canada.

By failing to seize the potential of the skilled immigrants we work so hard to attract, we are failing the future of our health-care system. We are failing the individuals who came to Canada eager to practise the professions they trained for. And we are missing out on their capacity to bring cultural sensitivity and language skills to a health-care system that serves an increasingly diverse population.

If we don’t use the skills of Canada’s internationally educated health professionals, there is plenty of need globally. Eventually, they will go where their talents are valued.

The underemployment of internationally educated health professionals is a complex and long-standing problem. Solving it will take a national approach, one that is both comprehensive and system-wide. It will take collaboration among many stakeholders, including governments, regulatory bodies, service providers, unions, professional associations and educational institutions, on policies and programs to enable us to fully use the skills of the internationally trained.

A recent Leger poll shows that 83 per cent of Canadians believe more should be done to ensure that internationally educated doctors can practise in Canada. The poll respondents would likely feel the same about internationally educated nurses, respiratory technicians and other professionals that are essential not only to the pandemic response but to the long-term needs of our health-care system.

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Shamira Madhany is Managing Director, Canada, and Deputy Executive Director at World Education Services.

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Ella Ferris is a retired Chief Nursing and Health Professional Executive and Hospital Administrator at a Toronto Academic Health Sciences Centre.