Nfld. & Labrador

The health minister says N.L. is 'blessed' with doctors. The medical association begs to differ

The Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association is taking issue with a recent comment made by Health Minister John Haggie, saying his statement doesn't reflect the reality of the physician shortage in the province. 

NLMA president says there needs to be a different approach to addressing crisis

Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association president Dr. Susan MacDonald says there's a significant difference between licensed physicians who are working and those who are working only part time. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

The Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association is taking issue with a recent comment made by Health Minister John Haggie, saying his statement doesn't reflect the reality of the physician shortage in the province. 

"From a numbers point of view, physicians and nurses, we actually are blessed in terms of numbers per capita," Haggie said in the House of Assembly last week.

But nearly 90,000 people in Newfoundland and Labrador are without a family doctor, according to the NLMA, and president Dr. Susan MacDonald said Monday that Haggie's statement doesn't tell the whole story. 

"My job is to advocate for my patients, and I would say family doctors and specialists in this province are absolutely concerned about their patients," MacDonald told CBC News.

"When they have complex medical care needs that are not appropriate for a one-off in an emergency room or a walk-in clinic, we as physicians get very concerned about that."

In 2019, a consultant hired by the NLMA found the total number of physicians licensed to practise in the province, and the number who are actually seeing patients, are very different. Some work only part time, while some, like MacDonald, focus entirely on palliative-care patients.

"Although our numbers are probably around 591 family physicians, he found that there are about 431 doing full-time family medicine. That's quite a significant difference," MacDonald said. 

The medical school at Memorial University in St. John's, seen here, is losing graduates to other provinces, says MacDonald. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

MacDonald said the consultant also created a forecast by taking numerous other factors into account: the province's aging population, physicians who are retiring, and the demand for the ones in practice. She said 60 full-time physicians are needed immediately, and another 10 need to be added each year for the next decade.

Find a different approach

To address the shortage, MacDonald said, there needs to be a different approach. 

"Right now we're focused [on] dealing with the fires, putting out the fires, dealing with the crisis, what's happening today that we can't handle," she said.

"We have to have a human resources plan. We have to plan out where do we need physicians, how many do we need and where should they be working."

Doctors are currently negotiating a new contract with the government, and MacDonald said other provinces are paying doctors more while the shortage of physicians threatens to get worse in Newfoundland and Labrador.

"We need to focus on our young colleagues that are coming out of medical school and residency here. We have the worst retention rate of any of the medical schools in Canada for keeping our own," said MacDonald. 

"Other provinces are really good at coming in and swooping up our homegrown talent. We need to work on developing and fostering those young doctors."

The union representing registered nurses in Newfoundland and Labrador has also disagreed with Minister Haggie in recent days, with the union saying a nurse shortage is affecting health-care services province wide.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Mark Quinn


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