Diagnosing cancer in the ER is all too common, says Doctors Nova Scotia

Dave Doucette's harrowing experience of being diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer after multiple visits to the emergency department should be a wake up call, say Nova Scotia opposition leaders.

Dave Doucette didn't have a family doctor and was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer at the ER

David Doucette, 52, says last July he left the emergency department and called 911. (David Laughlin/CBC)

Dave Doucette's harrowing experience of being diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer after multiple visits to the emergency department should be a wake-up call, say Nova Scotia opposition leaders.

But Doctors Nova Scotia says this is not an isolated case.

Doucette, 52, didn't have a family doctor and hadn't had a checkup in years. He was so frustrated as he tried to get a diagnosis that he says last July, he left the emergency department and called 911.

That night, results from an earlier biopsy showed he had Stage 4 non-Hodgkins lymphoma. 

Dr. Tim Holland with Doctors Nova Scotia says too often doctors diagnose cancer in the emergency department. (Robert Short/CBC)

"The unfortunate thing is that it's not really an uncommon story anymore," said Dr. Tim Holland with Doctors Nova Scotia. 

"I work emerg and I work in family medicine and we diagnose cancer too often in the emerg. There are very few things that are more heart-wrenching then telling somebody they have cancer and in the back of your mind thinking if they had a family physician, this very well may have been caught six months earlier, and very well may have led to a different prognosis."

Opposition demands answers

Holland says this example shows the urgency of hiring doctors. 

"It very much is a life-and-death matter, and in situations like this, it just exemplifies how important having access to a family physician is," he said.

Doucette didn't have a family doctor and hadn't had a checkup in years. (CBC)

This week, the Liberal government announced raises for family physicians and incentives to help the recruitment and retention effort. 

"That was just a first step, a pretty huge first step, but a first step," said Holland, who believes it will make a difference, but says other solutions need to be considered.

Doucette's story became a topic of debate in question period on Thursday, with NDP Leader Gary Burrill demanding answers from the premier.

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil called the experience that Doucette went through 'unacceptable.' (Canadian Press)

"The experience that Mr. Doucette had is unacceptable," said Premier Stephen McNeil. "At any time in our province, no patient should end up being in a parking lot to call an ambulance and find out that the level of illness that Mr. Doucette has been under."

Karla MacFarlane, interim leader of the Progressive Conservative party, said it's time the Liberals acknowledged the health-care system has failed.

Health minister responds 

The province's health minister, meanwhile, acknowledged the doctor shortage has created problems in emergency departments, but said that's why they're working hard to create more collaborative practices.

"We're engaged with a lot of primary care and care providers to maximize their scope of practice out within the community," said Randy Delorey. "We can't do everything at once. We are working and moving in a positive direction."

'We can't do everything at once. We are working and moving in a positive direction,' says Health Minister Randy Delorey. (Robert Short/CBC)

Last year, Doctors Nova Scotia pitched the idea of opening an orphan patient clinic for those with chronic illnesses, a place where people like Doucette could be treated while they wait for a permanent spot on a doctor's list.

Holland says after taking a closer look, that may not be the best option. 

"The problem is, you have to take working family doctors to staff that orphan patient clinic, and thereby you're taking away the ability to take on new patients off the 811 list," he said. "So you're very much robbing Peter to pay Paul, and the care you're delivering to Paul just isn't as good as what you could have delivered to Peter."

About the Author

Carolyn Ray

Videojournalist

Carolyn Ray is a videojournalist who has reported out of three provinces and two territories, and is now based in Halifax. You can reach her at Carolyn.Ray@cbc.ca

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