THE vexing issue of the non-accreditation of offshore medical schools in St. Lucia will soon be a thing of the past as measures are now underway to ensure that these schools become accredited.
Over the past several years, government has been grappling with the issue, going as far as establishing protocols for accreditation as a way of encouraging offshore schools of higher learning, particularly medical schools, to get certified.
Those protocols were developed in partnership with stakeholders such as the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Health, Medical and Dental Council, and others.
Education Minister, Dr. Gale Rigobert, earlier this week noted that government has for a long time been asking the offshore schools to aspire to accreditation level — all to no avail.
In fact, non-accredited off-shore tertiary institutions have increased in numbers in the country over the past two years despite repeated calls for them to become accredited. Spartan Medical School is the only offshore medical institution with accreditation in St. Lucia.
Today, offshore tertiary institutions are lining up for accreditation not because of pressure from local authorities but because of a question asked by a medical entity in the United States.
“In April of this year, medical schools and their students received notification that if they were to graduate from schools that were not accredited, they would not be considered for ECFMG (Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates) registration,” Dr. Rigobert said.
According to her, the Commission was simply saying that students who pursued their medical degrees outside the Commission’s jurisdictions would not be considered to practice medicine in the United States as they would need the stamp of approval from the Commission to do so.
The Commission, on its website, notes that international medical graduates (IMGs) comprise one-quarter of the U.S. physician workforce and that certification by ECFMG is the standard for evaluating the qualifications of these physicians before they enter U.S. graduate medical education where they provide supervised patient care. ECFMG Certification is also a requirement for IMGs to take step three of the three-step United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) and to obtain an unrestricted license to practice medicine in the United States.
The Minister said that ECFMG late last year asked the Ministry of Education which of its medical schools were accredited and whether the graduates of these schools were eligible to be licensed in St. Lucia.
“According to the existing protocols, for a graduate of a medical school in St. Lucia to be licensed to practice in St. Lucia that student has to graduate from a medical tertiary institution that is accredited. The answer to the simple question which schools are accredited is ‘yes’ to Spartan (and) no to the others,” Dr. Rigobert said.
She noted that the same answer applies to the question about whether students who undertook their medical studies in St. Lucia were licensed to practice in St. Lucia, with only students from Spartan University licensed to do so.
“There is no negotiating room in responding to those two questions,” Dr. Rigobert said.
She said it was regrettable that it had to take a letter from a foreign entity to impress upon the existing medical schools to do what in effect St. Lucia had been asking them to do for the past five to seven years.
“It says something about the level of respect accorded to our local institutions. It says, too, that perhaps unless it comes from a seemingly higher authority or powerful authority that persons are not inclined to move with haste,” Dr. Rigobert said.
The ECFMG inquiry into offshore medical schools here seems to have caused a flurry of activities geared at uplifting the standard of medical schools.
For instance, just two or three weeks ago, government passed in the House of Assembly a Bill called the Caribbean Accreditation Authority for Education in Medicine and Other Health Professions, the purpose of which was to give effect to and provide for the implementation of the Agreement Establishing the Caribbean Accreditation Authority for Education in Medicine and other Health Professions.
Also passed at the same time was the Accreditation Bill, the purpose of which was to provide for the process and mechanism of accrediting a programme of study offered by a tertiary institution and the award it confers and to establish a National Accreditation Council.
Dr. Rigobert said the Agreement Establishing the Caribbean Accreditation Authority for Education in Medicine and other Health Professions would be the accrediting body for CARICOM.
But what would have been the provocation behind the ECFMG enquiry in offshore medical schools in St. Lucia?
“I am made to understand that there are several events that have provoked that entity in the U.S., and others that have also posed questions similar in range — from students who have gone through programmes of study realizing they are not licensed to work here or anywhere,” Dr. Rigobert said.
Other events leading to the ECFMG inquiry, as explained by Dr. Rigobert, involved parents who, after spending thousands of dollars for their children’s medical studies, finding out that their children cannot practice medicine and potential employers raising questions about the competence of the students, among other things.
She said that non-accredited schools are now preparing themselves for site visits by CARICOM’s accreditation body as a way toward securing full accreditation.