Nova Scotia·Special Report

Cape Breton doctor says aging population could gridlock health system

A physician in Cape Breton said Nova Scotia’s medical system isn't ready for the wave of seniors it will soon need to help.

The province says it is working on a long-term strategy to deal with the aging population

Some emergency rooms in Cape Breton are routinely closed because there aren't enough staff. In fact, there's already a shortage of family doctors on the island. (iStock)

A physician in Cape Breton says Nova Scotia's medical system isn't ready for the wave of seniors it will soon need to help.

Dr. Paula Creighton, a geriatric medicine specialist, has spent much of her professional life treating the elderly. She says government needs to start making changes to the health care system before most baby boomers become elderly in the next 10 to 15 years.

"We're going to have twice the number of people with various forms of dementia and twice the number of people with various degrees of frailty," said Creighton.

She says new long-term care facilities need to be built and more people need to be trained to support seniors living at home.

Even then, finding people to do the work will be difficult.

Dr. Paula Creighton says in order to prepare for the rapidly aging population, more long-term care facilities need to be built. She also believes the provincial government needs to work on replacing its aging health care staff. (David Burke/CBC)

Creighton estimates in Cape Breton, 70 per cent of family doctors are already over the age of 50.

"Our health care providers, nurses, doctors, therapists, they're aging too. If we don't continue building that resource — which we're not — we won't have the medical professionals to care for us," she said.

Creighton says if something isn't done, the health care system will grind to a halt.

"Gridlock. Our forefounders who created the acute care system where you know in and out, which will still happen, right? We've got our children coming up, we need to have that available. It won't be. It may not be. That's the worst-case scenario," said Creighton.

Seniors say hospitals are already too slow

Senior Steve Andrecyk believes that gridlock has already started and says a stop at an outpatient facility proves that.

"When you're waiting and nervous and you're sick enough as you are being there, but if you have to wait four or five, six hours, that's quite a burden, quite a stress for seniors," he said.

Andrecyk said the hospital staff are great, when you get to see them.

Seventy-year-old Albert Gould is also tired of waiting.

"I need a knee replacement and they're telling me it's going to take a year and a half to two years before I can get in to get it done. There's nothing here. [At] one time, you could go and get it done right away.There's not enough doctors to do it in this area," he said.

Gould worries that as the aging population grows, wait times will get even worse.

Senior Steve Andrecyk checks his blood sugar. He says wait times at hospital emergency departments and outpatient facilities are already too long. (David Burke/CBC )

"It's going to be like a dictatorship here, Halifax is going to run everything, all the money will be up there. I think our health care is going to go down more and more every year because they're not going to respond to our needs down here," he said.

Some emergency rooms in Cape Breton are routinely closed because there aren't enough staff. In fact, there's already a shortage of family doctors on the island.

Government working to accommodate aging population

Ruby Knowles is the executive director of continuing care with Nova Scotia's health department. She says the government is pouring money into senior's health care.

Albert Gould is waiting for a knee replacement. It could take up to two years for him to get his new knee. (David Burke/CBC)

In the next fiscal year, she expects the long-term care budget in Nova Scotia to be around $566 million, while the home care budget will be about $200 million. Both of those amounts have grown by about 70 per cent since 2006.

About 1,900 people are still waiting for long-term care accommodations in Nova Scotia. That wait list has dropped by about 20 per cent since March.

Knowles said the department is preparing for changes in the population.

"The system is not going to grind to a halt. You know that's why we need to plan for seniors care. Many people into their 70s, 80s, even 90s are living very healthy lives and are not drawing particularly on the health care system," she said.

Knowles says the department has a short-term plan in place and is developing a long-term strategy to manage the aging population.

"What we're going to be working on in 2016 is a new continuing care strategy that does take us years into the future. So we certainly would invite the public to engage with us about what services they want to see provided into the future," she said.

About the Author

David Burke

Reporter

David Burke is a reporter in Halifax who covers everything from politics to science. His reports have been featured on The National, World Report and As it Happens, as well as the Information Morning shows in Halifax and Cape Breton.

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