A video conferencing system connecting three B.C. universities might not be the complete cure for some of the physician shortage issues in the province, but it is expected to do a lot to ease the problem.

According to the B.C. Medical Association,

B.C. produces the fewest physicians per capita in Canada — 128 a year. On top of that, more of those new physicians, about 60 per cent, are female, meaning they take more time out of the workforce than their male counterparts, the organization says. And fewer of the province’s new physicians want to become family doctors — only 26 per cent in 2002 versus 35 per cent in 1997.

The video conferencing system, developed for the University of Northern B.C. in Prince George by Winnipeg-based MTS Allstream Inc., allows medical students at the university to finish their medical degrees there rather than having to complete the full four years at the University of B.C. in Vancouver. Likewise, students from the University of Victoria can also now finish their degrees at their home university.

UNBC has distributed all four years of its medical program to the other two universities to facilitate the program.

All students must complete only the first semester of the program at UBC.

“”There is evidence to suggest if you train people from small communities or people who have an affinity to be northerners or rural people, they are more likely to end up working in the north,”” said Dr. David Snadden, associate dean responsible for the Northern Medical Program at UNBC. “”The majority of training has been carried out in urban centres, and if you train people in urban centres they’re going to work in urban centres. This is a problem, and not just for Canada.””

The system, which runs over BCNet, the province’s optical high-speed network, comprises about 35-40 positions in a lecture hall, touch screens at the lecturer’s podium and three large screens. One of the screens is used to transmit the lecture in real time, while the others can be used to transmit material such as PowerPoint presentations and students from other locations who want to ask a question or interact with the others.

“”That means in a very small community like ours where we don’t have a huge extra physician capacity — we’re still underserved — you can still get access to people who are experts in their field at UBC through the lecture system,”” Snadden said.

As well as the lectures, students have access through video conferencing to UBC’s anatomy and histology (examination of human tissue) labs.

“”We can do a demo of a dissection from Vancouver straight into our lab,”” he said.

According to Kelvin Shepherd, chief operating officer at MTS Communications and chief technology officer at MTS Allstream Inc., the system features sophisticated control capabilities.

“”So if the student wants to interact with the professor, simply by touching their speaker button the video control system will zoom in and focus in on them,”” he explained. “”It will put them up on a student screen and they’ll be able to have a conversation with the professor, the other classmates can join in and the whole arrangement operates more naturally than you might have in a situation where you’d have a big room and one camera. A lot of people have this vision of video conferencing being a room and a camera and a screen, but this has a much more interactive, multimedia multivideo capability.””

Although all three universities procured their systems independently, he added, each interoperates with the others.

“”The core technology is the same — there was a common agreement on some elements of the solution,”” said Shepherd.

And so far, as of the second week the system has been up and running, it has been working well, said Snadden.

“”It has been brilliant,”” he said. “”We had one or two minor teething problems in week one, but we’ve tested this stuff for a year now.””

The biggest challenge, he said, was that lecturers have had to adjust their style a bit to accommodate the video conferencing system.

If all works according to plan, the system will be another first for Canada, Shepherd noted.

“”In terms of the technology it’s pretty impressive that you can deliver that type of material electronically and have that level of interaction, and only time will tell (how successful it will be),”” he said. “”I think the folks at UNBC probably consider this one of the leading applications of this type of program in the world, certainly in Canada, and I think it probably is a template other people will be watching to see how it turns out.””

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