A family doctor who recently left an underserved area of rural Cape Breton believes the province's recruitment strategy needs to focus more on how a physician's family will fit into a community.

Dr. Suha Masalmeh was recruited to the Buchanan Memorial Community Health Centre in Neils Harbour, N.S., two years ago, and moved to the area with her husband and two daughters.

"It's a lovely community. We really did love it and we really chose to be there," she said Tuesday.

Although her daughters have come to consider themselves Cape Bretoners, the family made the difficult decision to leave the area last month after her husband, a mental health counsellor, was not able to find work in the area.

"That was an unfortunate thing, and we didn't even anticipate that when we first moved to the area because I remember, when I was recruited to the area they asked for his resume and they were really confident that there is a position for him," Masalmeh explained.

"There is a big need for mental health counselling in general anywhere in the province. So there was no anticipation of difficulty for him to find a position."

No work anywhere

Masalmeh's husband has a master's in education counselling from Acadia University, but the openings he pursued with the Nova Scotia Health Authority required a degree in psychology or social work, she said. He also applied for a position as a guidance counsellor with the school board, she said, but was told he had to be a teacher.

Masalmeh said other students in her husband's class, and previous graduates from the same program, have found work in Nova Scotia.

The family has moved to New Glasgow in the hope that he'll have better luck in a bigger centre.

Difficult decision

The departure of Masalmeh has left the north-of-Smokey area of Cape Breton with three doctors to cover the caseloads of four, and two of those doctors are eager to retire, or at least work reduced hours.

"I really feel saddened that I left my patients," Masalmeh said. "I had a great community around me, great staff working with [me] ... so it was really a difficult decision for us."

Masalmeh has agreed to work on a locum basis in Neils Harbour as needed until a replacement is found. She'd like to see improvements to the recruitment process to avoid such situations in the future.

"It's good to actually include the whole picture of the whole family being together, not just that person being recruited to that position," she said, suggesting recruiters should try to match both spouses to an area more likely to offer work to each of them.

"But it's better to start that early, because it does cost a lot of money to recruit physicians. So it's better to put it in the right direction from the beginning," she said.

Health authority responds

The Nova Scotia Health Authority has responded by saying there will always be doctors coming and going.

"That is the nature of the health-care system," said authority spokeswoman Annette Bourgeois-Bent in an email. "They leave either temporarily or even permanently for any number of reasons, including personal, health, retirements or education/specialized training."

Bourgeois-Bent said recruitment doesn't happen overnight.

"It can sometimes take up to a year or more to recruit a new physician to the area. Successful recruitment depends on many factors, including the fit with the community and a physician and his or her family. These factors are true in Nova Scotia, as well as across the country."