Physician Activism: The Ontario Medical Student Bursary Fund

The average medical school tuition in Ontario is now over $23,000 annually. With the average overall pay for a woman in Ontario being approximately $40,000 annually, one can appreciate that studying medicine could easily be beyond the reach of most Ontario students. (Reference: http://www.payequity.gov.on.ca/en/pdf/wagegaps.pdf) This raises the question of what can be done to make access to a medical education more equitable. In 1999, the Ontario Medical Association decided to take action to help well-qualified but poor students become doctors. This decision recognized not only the reality of higher tuitions and living expenses but also that, as tuitions increased, the average income of a medical student’s family of origin also increased. For example, the average income today of a medical student’s family or origin is $140,000 annually – within the top10% of income earners. (Reference: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/who-are-canada-s-top-1-1.1703321) In 1999, led by then President-Elect Dr. Albert Schumacher and bolstered by the donation of Dr. George Yee, the Ontario Medical Association established the Ontario Medical Student Bursary Fund.

I have been the Chair of the Ontario Medical Student Bursary Fund (OMSBF) at the Ontario Medical Association since 2011. In that capacity, I have a unique opportunity to see physicians’ dedication to the future through their personal contributions to a fund dedicated to ensuring that medical school is affordable to youth from all walks of life.

Since its inception in 1999, the fund has raised more than $10 million. The fund is administered through the Ontario Medical Foundation with costs borne by the Ontario Medical Association. During the last academic year, the Bursary Fund distributed $400,000 worth of non-repayable bursaries to 133 medical students at Ontario’s six medical schools. Of the total bursaries, 108 students received a $3,000 bursary and 25 students each received $2,000 from one of our named bursary funds.

In the scheme of things, $2,000 – $3,000 may seem like very little money but most of the students who earn one of the OMA’s bursaries are also eligible for other financial aid as well as significant merit scholarships. As the Chair of the OMSBF, it is my hope that, over time, the fund will raise enough money to increase the size and importance of the bursary. At present, some of the most important bursaries are those provided by the OMA’s Branch Societies to support students from their own communities who are training in medicine. Since students often return to their own communities or regions to practice, funding a student bursary allows a community to invest in its own medical future.

Reviewing the applications for the named bursaries can be a very tiring task. This is not because it is arduous or time-consuming, but because it is emotional. As committee members read the letters provided by applicants, one becomes acutely aware of the stress students are under as they seek to finance their education. Also, many students have stressors beyond medical school and finances and I find myself hoping that there is good outreach to them about getting support. One of my predecessors on the Bursary Fund, Dr. Dennis Pitt, from Ottawa used to mention how compelling the stories were and this is still true.

This has been a difficult year for Ontario physicians with cutbacks, severe cutbacks in some cases but doctors are still contributing to the OMSBF. One doctor, Dr. David Berbrayer, has redirected all of his OMA honoraria to the fund. Others continue to contribute in large amounts. The Government of Ontario likes to imply that doctors are greedy but this fund proves in a very tangible way that this is not the case.

Hanukkah began on December 6 this year, incidentally St. Nicholas Day, each holiday one whose traditional gifts include small amounts of cash – symbolized in both cases by gold foil-wrapped coins. These tokens remind us of the benefits of giving, especially for the giver. As I reflect on this, and on another successful year for the Bursary Fund, I think of this wise quote from a girl whose faith in people made her a hero.

“No one has ever become poor by giving.”

Anne Frank

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