Nova Scotia

Cape Breton family doctor shortage sparks recruiting campaign

Health officials say half a dozen doctors have left the area or retired, and another six or seven will leave their practices within the next six to 18 months.

Nova Scotia Health Authority seeks 13 new family doctors for the island

Thousand of Cape Breton residents don't have a family doctor. (iStock)

The Nova Scotia Health Authority is trying to recruit 13 family doctors for Cape Breton due to a shortage of family doctors on the island.

Health officials say half a dozen doctors have left the area or retired, and another six or seven will leave their practices within the next six to 18 months.

That's left thousands of patients without a general practitioner, and feeling adrift in the system.

Cathy Timmons of Sydney has been too sick to work since January. She's had test after test, but no firm diagnosis. Now her doctor has left the province.

"I don't have a doctor now that I can go and refer to say, 'Can I go back to work? What can you do to make me better?'" said Timmons. "Right now I'm in limbo that I don't know what my future's going to be."

Timmons says she's called every doctor on the island, but none are accepting new patients. She recently went to the walk-in clinic in Sydney but was turned away because the clinic already had too many patients.  

"I went at 4:16 p.m., and they were full to capacity — and the clinic doesn't open until 4," she said. 

Triage to get a prescription

Timmons then went to the emergency department in Sydney.

"I felt bad going there because I realize there's people in worse shape than I am," said Timmons.

"But I needed to have stuff to help me breathe. I waited two and a half hours, then saw a physician — I don't even know the physician's name. There wasn't any time to talk. They just took me in a triage room and wrote out a prescription, and I was on my way."

The health authority says it has a number of recruiting initiatives underway and is hopeful the positions will be filled.

Dr. Jeremy Hillyard, the medical executive director for the eastern region, admits it's tough on patients in the meantime.

"It's a very difficult situation and we need to do a better job of handling trying to assign people to practices," said Hillyard.

Children without a doctor

Marni Aitkens of Coxheath can't find a family doctor for her and her two young children.  

She recently wrote to the provincial health minister, Leo Glavine, to express concern for her family and for Cape Breton.

"How are we going to be able to attract anyone to move here, let alone to stay here?" said Aitkens. "It worries me that our population is going to decline at a faster rate if we can't secure family physicians."

Hillyard said he's hopeful that provincial incentives to attract new doctors will eventually pay off, such as a medical resident program that brings medical students to Cape Breton to finish their training. Some graduates decide to stay in the area.

But Hillyard says that will take time.

Timmons says she doesn't have time to wait. She's considering leaving Cape Breton to stay with family elsewhere to get a doctor and a diagnosis.

"If it's going to take moving to get a doctor, then that's what I'm going to have to do," she said.


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