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Prince Edward Island Health Minister Doug Currie attends a meeting of federal and provincial health ministers in Halifax on Sept. 27, 2012.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Prince Edward Island's Liberal government is introducing a new doctor recruitment strategy, requiring medical students to commit to practice on the Island for five years after they graduate in return for financial aid.

The "return-in-service" agreement, which will be a pilot project, will provide support for medical education expenses to three students a year. In return, they commit to the five-year time frame. The students can apply for the project at the end of their second year of medical school.

All of the details of the strategy – the first of its kind for PEI – will be outlined Friday by Health Minister Doug Currie.

"We are basically saying to family physicians that we are putting dollars on the table to capture your focus and attention for a five-year return in service on the investment we make with you after year two of your medical training," Mr. Currie said.

It is hoped that this pilot project will provide a guaranteed return on the province's investment. It will focus on family and rural medicine and guarantee a succession of new, young family physicians practicing on the Island. PEI natives will be given a preference, but the program is open to anyone who commits to practising there.

Mr. Currie is trying to be innovative, as the current program aimed at bringing young doctors to the island isn't working.

PEI has no medical school of its own. The PEI government contributed $800,000 this year for 16 PEI medical students (four students each in four years of school) to attend Memorial University in Newfoundland. The cost of the program has increased since 2001, when the PEI government contributed $47,500 for two students to begin their four-year program.

The idea was that these students might return as doctors to Prince Edward Island – but only one has, Mr. Currie said.

"It's great that Island kids are going to medical school, but right now there is a huge investment on the table," he said. "We are trying to look at new ways of providing physical recruitment that is different than the way we've been doing it."

The Memorial program is now under review.

Some other provinces have different forms of return-in-service agreements. Newfoundland and Labrador, for example, offers funding to fourth-year medical students who commit to spending "one year of return-in-service for each year the incentive is received," according to the government's website.

There are 240 doctors on PEI, but drastic shortages are anticipated as one-third of them are over the age of 55. Right now, 95 per cent of Islanders have a family physician, which is 10 per cent above national recommendations. But the tiny island province of 140,000 people has had trouble recruiting doctors. It is advertising now for family physicians in several small centres as well as for specialists, such as a medical oncologist and anesthetist. There is no dermatologist on PEI – and the province is looking for one.

Incentives are offered to doctors who want to relocate to PEI. For example, the province is trying to recruit a physchiatrist to Charlottetown and will give that doctor $40,000 in return for a commitment to practice on the Island for three years. A maximum moving allowance of $20,000 is also part of the package.

The pitch also plays up the laid-back Island lifestyle as a selling point – "Prince Edward Island: Where you can find balance between career and life."

Editor's note. A previous version of this story, which has been corrected, had incorrect information about the amount PEI contributes to have residents educated at Memorial University.