N.S. has 118 doctor vacancies, needs 100 a year for next decade: group
HALIFAX -- The shortage of doctors in Nova Scotia is worsening as a growing number of physicians near retirement, recruitment levels lag and health needs become more complex, a medical group warned Wednesday.
Nancy MacCready-Williams, CEO of Doctors Nova Scotia, told the legislature's public accounts committee there are 118 doctor vacancies throughout the province.
As well, 1,300 of the 2,400 physicians currently practising are over the age of 50, and 630 are over 60, suggesting the shortage will become more acute as doctors wrap up their careers.
"The last two years, it's been more pronounced than we've seen in previous years," she said after speaking to the committee. "We just know we've got an aging demographic in our physician population and they need to retire and we need to recruit behind them."
It wasn't clear whether those vacancies were in specific geographic areas or took in certain specialties.
She said the Physician Resource Plan, developed by her group and the province in 2012, stated the province needs to recruit 100 doctors a year for the next decade to deal with retirements and an aging population with increasingly complex medical needs. Half of those will need to be family physicians and the remainder specialists, MacCready-Williams said.
Later in the day, a government source familiar with the upcoming provincial budget, to be tabled Thursday, told The Canadian Press the fiscal document is expected to include $2.4 million in annual funding to hire an additional 50 doctors a year.
Dr. Jeanne Ferguson, a geriatric psychiatrist in Cape Breton, said the lack of doctors is being sharply felt at hospitals in the area, which is short vascular and thoracic surgeons, geriatricians and infectious disease specialists. She said the people seeking a psychiatrist have to wait up to 354 days in Sydney, compared to about 80 days in Halifax.
"We are in huge trouble here and this has only gotten worse over the last two years -- it's gotten considerably worse," she said. "We're having real difficulties managing on a day-to-day basis."
Ferguson said the emergency room at the Northside General Hospital in North Sydney operates only from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. most days, and closes sometimes on weekends when there are no doctors to work the shifts. She said doctors there are being encouraged to work at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital nearby in Sydney with the promise of higher salaries.
The resulting shift of patients to the larger regional hospital has resulted in overcrowding and delays, she said.
"We have a new bed designation in our emergency room at the Regional -- it's called the bed by the ice machine," she said. "So the last thing we need in Sydney is 10,000 more visits a year from North Sydney."
Eddie Orrell, the provincial politician who represents the Northside area, said he went to the Northside hospital on Saturday after experiencing chest pains. He found the emergency room closed and had to call an ambulance to take him to the Sydney hospital, where he said he joined a lineup of other ambulances waiting to get in.
"I think the ultimate goal is to close the ER," the Progressive Conservative politician said.
The complaints come just days before Premier Stephen McNeil is expected to call a provincial election, in which health care will likely figure prominently for his majority Liberal government.
Asked about the growing physician shortage, McNeil said improving access is part of a long-term reorganization of the health-care system.
"It is a massive shift in how we're trying to change health-care delivery," he said. "I don't think you can do that overnight."
However, Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie said the Liberals' restructuring of regional health authorities into one entity has done little to save money and direct it to better patient care.
"What really is reaching a crisis is access to family doctors for all Nova Scotians," he said. "The premier and the minister of health should be directing the health authority to get doctors in communities that need them. That is not happening."
NDP Leader Gary Burrill said the premier must recognize the health-care system is in crisis.
"We have 106,000 people without a family doctor, overcrowded or closed emergency rooms, wait times of two to three years for surgery, and the budget for seniors' care cut by $8 million," he said in a statement.
"If this isn't a crisis, I'd like to know what it will take to make the premier pay attention."