top of page

Medical Education Strategies for Rural and Remote Communities

Medical Education Strategies for Rural and Remote Communities

Urban-based medical education is poor foundation for rural practice

Medical education takes place mostly in large urban centers where students are exposed to teaching hospitals with a high degree of specialization and high technology treatment options. The large range of cultural attractions in big cities also acts as a social magnet to young professionals. After immersion in such a rich cultural and technological environment, the prospect of medical practice in rural and remote areas is unappealing to many students. Also their clinical experience in an urban setting may not adequately prepare them for rural remote practice.

Generalist versus Specialist approaches

The Association of Faculties of Medicine of Canada, in two reports of the future of medical education in Canada, has highlighted the need to achieve the right balance between generalist and specialist approaches to health care (AFMC; AFMC 2012). The strong linkage of specialty medicine with the development of new scientific knowledge and technological innovation has lent it great prestige and made it harder to portray a generalist approach in an appealing light to students. This poses a special problem for rural and remote areas where specialists are less available and family physicians and other primary care providers must provide a wider range of services than their urban counterparts.

Designing medical education for rural/remote practice

Attract applicants with a natural affinity

While a number of rural streams have been created as satellite programs within the framework of existing MD programs, the Northern Ontario School of Medicine was designed as a new stand-alone school dedicated to meet the health care needs of northern, rural and remote populations. (Tesson et al. 2009)

NOSM’s MD program has a number of features which make it particularly effective in meeting its mandate of serving the rural and remote populations of Northern Ontario:

  1. Applicants who meet the required grade average standard (3.0 on the 4.0 scale), are then evaluated on the degree of their experience and interest in northern and rural communities. The School’s goal is to seek a student body profile reflecting the demographics of Northern Ontario.

Distributed learning sites (click for map)
  1. As part of their third year Comprehensive Community Clerkship, students spend eight months in a host community in Northern Ontario. They study specialty disciplines, pursuing them as cases arise within their community practice. They meet the same standards as students in urban teaching hospitals, but their learning takes place within the context of rural community medicine.

  2. Northern and Rural Health is one of five core themes woven through the 4 year MD program. It covers the teaching of cultural competency especially in relation to populations in Northern Ontario such as francophone and aboriginal peoples. All students spend four weeks in an aboriginal community in their first year and can opt for a francophone community for other placements.

NOSM has been in operation now for over seven years and has a high success rate in placing its graduates in northern, rural and remote settings and with more than half its students opting for family medicine as their specialty. Its students have also achieved excellent results in meeting national standards, showing that there is no reason why an MD program focusing on rural and remote communities should compromise on quality. On the contrary, rural and remote communities have proved to be rich learning environments for clinical practice.


  1. The Association of Faculties of Medicine of Canada. The Future of Medical Education in Canada (FMEC): A Collective Vision for MD Education. Report.

  2. The Association of Faculties of Medicine of Canada (2012). A Collective Vision for Postgraduate Medical Education in Canada. Report.

  3. Tesson, G., Hudson, G., Strasser, R., and Hunt, D. (2009). The Making of the Northern Ontario School of Medicine: A Case Study in the History of Medical Education. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press. Also in French: La création de l’École de médecine du Nord de l’Ontario : Une étude de cas dans l’histoire de la formation médicale. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

  4. Worley, P., Strasser, R. and Prideaux, D. (2004). Can Medical Students Learn Specialist Disciplines Based in Rural Practice: Lessons from Students’ Self reported Experience and Competence. Rural and Remote Health, 4 (4):338.


bottom of page