HALIFAX – Recently released figures show a record number of Nova Scotians are waiting for family doctors, backing up the new Tory government’s campaign warnings about personnel shortages in the province’s health-care system.
As of Oct. 1, 77,696 names were on a health authority’s waiting list for access to a family doctor, a jump of 60 per cent from the same time last year. That number represents about eight per cent of the population, up from five per cent a year ago.
The list is also for access to nurse practitioners at a family practice, though the large majority of family practices are still operated by physicians.
The figure indicates more people have signed up on the list while the number of available doctors in the province remained stagnant, Dr. Heather Johnson, president of Doctors Nova Scotia, said in an interview Tuesday.
“I’d say we’ve been treading water over the past few years,” said Johnson, whose organization represents physicians in Nova Scotia. “There’s been retirements (of family doctors) and there have been people recruited to fill their positions … but the new family practice doctors usually have fewer people on their roster.”
During the summer election campaign, the Tories repeatedly warned about the crisis in the health-care system, adding that deficit spending was needed to make necessary reforms. The party’s platform promised tens of millions of dollars in the first year of its mandate to recruit and retain more doctors and other health professionals, including a pledge to create a pension plan for physicians.
Johnson said the 60 per cent increase in people waiting for doctors could be partially explained by the pandemic, as some people without a doctor may have decided it was time to be looked after.
“During COVID-19, there was an increasing number of people reflecting on their health care and they were at home and decided to attach themselves to a health-care provider,” she said.
In addition, the Health Department on May 1 came out with a pilot project allowing anyone on the waiting list to access virtual care. Johnson said this incentive also may have caused some people to register for a family doctor.
Johnson said there’s optimism among health-care officials that the Tories’ plans to fix the system will help in recruitment and retention.
“Every year we graduate 40 new family physicians just from Nova Scotia, and if we can focus on retaining them … then we have the ability to impact that list,” she said.
Brendan Elliot, a spokesman for Nova Scotia Health, said in an email that another factor causing the waiting list to grow is there are more Nova Scotians suffering from chronic diseases as they age, requiring more care.
In addition, Elliot said “unexpected departures,” particularly in the province’s eastern and northern zones, have left patients in need of a new doctor, while there has been a steady growth in the province’s population, with 43,000 more residents since 2016.
Dr. Kevin Orrell, the deputy minister and CEO of the newly created Office of Health Care Professionals Recruitment, said in an interview Tuesday that wider reforms in the health system will be key to retaining physicians and other health professionals.
“We need to acquire more people to work in the system, but if we just do that, we won’t solve the problems that exist in Nova Scotia. We will have to create a different way these people work,” he said.
He said the reforms to the system will also need to include improvements to working conditions for nurses, paramedics, lab technicians and other health professionals — with each of these elements feeding into an overall improvement in the work environment for doctors.
“These are no quick fixes. This is a system that is extremely complex,” he said.
Still, Orrell said as the various reforms occur, he is hopeful that the waiting list will shorten. “We can certainly witness some improvement over the next six months,” he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 12, 2021.