Nfld. & Labrador

Medical association says some rural N.L. areas will lose last doctors in the next few months

The president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association says several rural communities will lose their last doctor in the next few months. The mayors of two of those towns say the situation is very concerning.

Coast of Bays area to lose doctor by end of month; Harbour Breton Mayor says situation 'unfair'

Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association president Dr. Susan MacDonald says the provincial government needs to immediately implement solutions to fix the doctor shortage. (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada)

The Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association is warning that several rural health centres in the province may soon be without a single physician.

"It's unbelievable that we are in this position," said Dr. Susan MacDonald, president of the NLMA. 

"The government needs to take this extremely seriously and put in some rapid fix."

MacDonald said over the next few months, a number of communities will be left without a doctor, including Harbour Breton, Baie Verte, Fogo and Buchans. St. Alban's has already lost its last remaining doctor.

While government officials have touted the provincial Health Accord's recommendations as a solution to the province's lack of doctors, MacDonald said implementing those ideas is a long process and doesn't help with the current problems.

"That's not going to fix the situation in Harbour Breton and Baie Verte this summer," she said.

"It's incumbent on the government to come up with some very quick fixes of how to entice people to get there, and get there now, and to support the few physicians that may be left."

MacDonald said diversions to other health-care centres causes their respective emergency rooms, which are already experiencing unprecedented levels of demand, to be further overburdened.

"There is chaos at emergency rooms," she said. "It's craziness."

"We have a lot of patients without a primary-care physician. And what many people don't recognize is that primary-care physicians prevent patients from ending up in the emergency room."

Connaigre Peninsula Health Care Centre in Harbour Breton will be losing its last full time doctor on April 22. Central Health says they're looking for a replacement and some temporary fill-in doctors will be available in parts of May and June. (Garrett Barry/CBC News)

MacDonald said doctors are leaving because they're being overworked and the recent contract reached with the province doesn't do enough to cover the rising costs of living and running an office.

When a doctor leaves, MacDonald said, it only increases the stress on other health-care professionals in the area, even in their off hours.

"If they go to their local grocery store, they're constantly stopped by desperate people needing their prescriptions, needing some blood work, begging them to take on a relative. And it is so incredibly stressful to have to say 'no' when everything in your heart is saying, 'I need to help this person,'" she said.

MacDonald said it leads to doctors feeling forced to work extra hours and getting burned out, even leaving the profession altogether.

"They are so tired and so frustrated, and they felt that they've given their absolute all. And for what?"

'A desperate situation'

Harbour Breton Mayor Lloyd Blake says the prospect of having no doctor on the Connaigre Peninsula area is sad and unfair. (Garrett Barry/CBC News)

"It's very, very sad," said Harbour Breton Mayor Lloyd Blake. "We're in a desperate situation out here."

After April 22, people in need of urgent care in the Coast of Bays area will be diverted from the Connaigre Peninsula Health Care Centre in Harbour Breton to the hospital in Grand-Falls Windsor, 220 kilometres away.

Central Health says it is working to recruit full-time doctors to work in the centre, as well as locums to provide fill-in service. Although some temporary doctors will be in the area for parts of May and June, having no doctor south of Grand Falls-Windsor raises concerns for many in the area. 

"Everyone is nervous," said Blake. "What happens if accidents happen?"

He said residents are also concerned about the prospect of having a medical emergency in the winter and having to try to drive along a highway that he said has no cell service.

Blake said he's almost 65 years old and he had hoped the health-care system would be there to support him if he needs it.

"I'm very healthy. Never a burden on the health-care system. If I had a heart attack tonight, I'd like to think that after 40 years of contributing to the economy that I will be looked after. But right now? That's probably not going to be," he said.

Blake said it's unfair and unacceptable. 

"We got to come up with some kind of incentives to attract doctors to rural Newfoundland," said Blake. 

Hermitage Mayor Steve Crewe says having no doctor poses a concern to the thriving aquaculture industry in his town. (Garrett Barry/CBC News)

Similarly, Steve Crewe, mayor of nearby Hermitage, said changes need to be made fast.

"We got to promote the area more and try to get these people wanting to come here and wanting to live here," he said. 

Crewe said Hermitage is a busy industry-based town with an aging population and the prospect of being without a doctor is scary.

He said the distance between Hermitage and Grand Falls-Windsor poses a big concern, and winter weather conditions could make an ambulance trip even more difficult.

"Our ambulance has got to take those people who called an ambulance and drive to Grand Falls, which is 2½ hours away, both ways. So we're going to be without an ambulance for four to five hours. And then if they come back and get called, then they got to go again," he said.

Crewe said that distance limits the amount of responses the ambulance can make.

"Two trips a day would probably be the most that they'd be able to make."

While this is a significant problem for people on the south coast, said Crewe, it's part of a bigger trend across the province. 

"The biggest problem is it's not just happening down here," he said. "It's a big problem for everybody."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Garrett Barry and On The Go

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