Be wary of promises addressing physician shortage

Commentary with Geoff deGannes

Published on March 17, 2017

Commentary with Geoff deGannes

The statistics released last week by the Nova Scotia Health Authority showing the growing numbers of Nova Scotians without a family doctor are certainly cause for concern. It is particularly troubling for Cumberland County where the recent Vital Signs statistical report on our area shows the percentage of seniors is higher than both the provincial and national averages.

As well, the prevalence of certain types of cancers, diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity in this county are all higher than the provincial and national average.

In light of those numbers, it is essential that there are enough health care professionals, specifically family physicians to meet the increased demand on our health care system. We have seen first hand the impact of the physician shortage is having in rural Nova Scotia with the frequent closures of the emergency rooms at health care centres in this county, particularly at Springhill’s All Saints Collaborative Health Care Centre.  

It is also reflected in the long waits many residents face when they show up at the outpatients department at the Cumberland Regional Health Care Centre for emergency care.

The Nova Scotia Health Authority is reporting that as of March 6, just over 25,000 people in this province were on a wait list for access to a family doctor or nurse practitioner. Last November, the number was about 6,000.

A non-profit organization viewed as the authority on health statistics in Canada puts the number even higher. The Canadian Institute for Health Information says about 10 per cent, or about 95,000 Nova Scotians, don't have a family doctor. Doctors Nova Scotia is painting a pretty ominous future scenario estimating that over the next 10 years as many as 400 family physicians out of about 1,200 will leave their practices in this province as many retire.  

The challenge of physician recruitment is not unique to Nova Scotia, but that is little consolation for those individuals with chronic illnesses who have tried unsuccessfully to find a family doctor or even 24/7 emergency room services within their community.  

The solution, in part, may be the addition of more nurse practitioners to the system. Janet Knox, CEO of the Nova Scotia Health Authority, says about two dozen are being hired to work in collaboration with doctors and with the introduction of the nurse practitioners, 14,000 new spaces in primary care will be available in the next three months. That may provide some relief in the short term, but it certainly doesn’t resolve the much larger problem of physician recruitment and retention.

From a political perspective, the current situation is problematic for Premier Stephen McNeil and his Liberal government who promised during the 2013 election campaign that there would be a doctor for every Nova Scotian.

With an election possible later this year, that’s one promise that will fall well short of the mark at least during the government’s first term of office. And the opposition parties will likely be quick to remind Nova Scotians of that, while hoping there’s no second chance for the Liberal government. 

Unfortunately, there is no easy fix to the physician shortage problem and Nova Scotians should be skeptical of any political party that claims to have an instant solution.

 

Geoff deGannes is the past chairman of the Tantramar Radio Society. His daily commentaries can be heard on 107.9 CFTA.