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The College of Family Physicians of Canada is pausing a plan to extend residencies for family doctors to three years after physicians voted against it.David Jackson/The Globe and Mail

The organization that sets training standards for Canadian family doctors is pausing a plan to lengthen residencies by a year after physicians from across the country voted overwhelmingly against the idea.

Michael Green, the president of the College of Family Physicians of Canada, said Monday that the college will discuss the terms of the pause at a two-day board meeting that wraps up Tuesday.

“We’ve heard the message,” Dr. Green said. “We’re going to pause and take some time to reset.”

The CFPC announced last year that it intended to increase the residency training period for family doctors in Canada to three years from two, beginning no earlier than 2027. Residency is the mandatory training program that medical graduates must complete to be licensed for independent practice.

The longer residency was supposed to better prepare graduates for the increasingly complex landscape of family medicine, but it drew criticism from political leaders and front-line care providers who feared it would exacerbate Canada’s primary-care crisis.

Critics argued a longer residency period risked turning more future doctors off of family medicine as a career. Residencies for specialists – such as cardiologists, oncologists and surgeons – are typically four or five years or more, but those disciplines tend to be more lucrative than family medicine.

Federal, provincial and territorial health ministers came out against a three-year residency last month. Other influential medical organizations, including those representing rural physicians, resident doctors and medical students, also spoke out against the plan.

The opposition reached a crescendo on Nov. 1, when 91 per cent of family doctors who cast a ballot at the CFPC’s annual meeting of members voted in favour of a motion to suspend and review the three-year residency plan. There were 2,775 ballots cast, or 7.4 per cent of the Canadian family doctors eligible to vote on the matter.

“When our own members are expressing that they’re not certain, we need to listen to them,” Dr. Green said on Monday. “Likewise, when governments express that they’re not certain and this has implications for the Canadian health care system, we need to listen to them.”

However, Dr. Green, who is also the head of the department of family medicine at Queen’s University, said the challenges that led the college to propose a longer training period haven’t gone away.

There is still a need to beef up training for future family doctors on new technologies, as well as in long-term care, home care, virtual care, mental-health care and health equity – all of which may be difficult to squeeze into two years.

Canada’s two-year residency for family doctors is among the shortest in the world. Family doctors train for three years in the United States, Britain, New Zealand and Australia. Australia has a rural family medicine designation that requires four years of training. Ireland’s core family medicine residency takes four years to complete.

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