Nova Scotia

Death rate at Cape Breton hospitals among highest in Canada

A report from the Canadian Institute for Health Information shows the death rate at four Cape Breton hospitals is climbing for the second year in a row, and is now among the highest in the country.

Data shows mortality ratio at Sydney and area hospitals has climbed in last 2 years

A 190-thousand square foot addition is planned for the Cape Breton Regional Hospital, with an expanded emregency department, critical care department and cancer centre. (Robert Short/CBC)

Data from the Canadian Institute for Health Information shows the death rate at hospitals in and around Sydney, N.S., is among the highest in the country.

This is the second year in a row the Cape Breton Healthcare Complex's standardized mortality ratio has climbed.

The complex includes the regional hospital in Sydney, plus community hospitals in New Waterford, Glace Bay and North Sydney.

Alfie MacLeod, the Progressive Conservative MLA for Sydney River-Mira-Louisbourg, said the government and the Nova Scotia Health Authority need to take action.

"This is not about politics," he said Friday. "This is about people's health and about people's lives, and we, collectively, have to look at what's going wrong here."

Sydney River-Mira-Louisbourg MLA Alfie MacLeod says he believes the provincial government and the health authority are failing physicians. (CBC)

MacLeod said it's not clear why the death rate is going up, but the numbers take into account the aging population.

He said an exodus of family doctors and specialists could be contributing to it.

"You know, we have great health-care professionals in the system, but these people, like anybody else, need to have the resources to do the job that they were trained to do and the job they want to do, and I believe that the government and the health authority are failing them," MacLeod said.

"The cost of that is people who are not getting the type of health care they need, and according to this report, it's also deaths are being caused."

Data errors partly to blame: NSHA

The Nova Scotia Health Authority said it is surprised by and concerned about the increases.

Dr. Mark Taylor, interim vice-president of medicine, said it's not yet clear why the death rate keeps going up in Cape Breton hospitals.

"We don't want to give the impression that that's the only issue there," Taylor said.

"It is quite possible that there are issues with regard to the patients we're treating. We really don't have enough information yet to look at that. In the days to come we will be looking at that in more detail."

Quality review coming

Taylor said the mortality data would not be a good indicator of the number of doctors or specialists in the system. He said wait times and other data are better indicators of staffing shortages.

In addition, said Taylor, the Cape Breton hospitals fared well when compared to national averages in categories other than mortality rates.

Bethany McCormick, the health authority's senior director for planning, performance and accountability, said some data errors came to light after staff began reviewing charts and the coding used to mark data for the health institute.

She said staff "fell behind a bit" and were only able to review 40 per cent of the charts. They did find some errors and made some corrections, she said.

However, McCormick said, the health authority has been reviewing charts monthly since April and when staff begin to review the data in depth, they will also perform a quality review to make improvements in health care as well as reporting.

The Canadian Institute for Health Information is an independent, non-profit organization that collects data on the country's health-care systems. (Chaikom/Shutterstock)

The Canadian Institute for Health Information's standardized mortality ratio is determined by dividing the number of deaths in a facility in one year by the number expected, and multiplying by 100.

Any result higher than 100 is considered above average.

The Cape Breton Regional Hospital's mortality ratio last year was 123, while the Canadian average was 91.

The latest figures show the Sydney hospital's rate has climbed to 144, while the national average has dropped to 89.

The rate at hospitals in the Eastern Zone, including the Cape Breton regional, also rose over the last two years. This year's zone average is 120.


Tom Ayers


Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for 36 years. He has spent half of them covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at