Nova Scotia

Number of patients looking for a doctor grows in CBRM, where average wait is 414 days

Last month, the number of patients looking for a family doctor in Nova Scotia's eastern zone shot up nearly 36 per cent. Most of those were in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality, where patients wait on average more than 400 days to get a doctor.

Health authority says increase in demand due to physicians leaving practice, retiring or dying

Patients looking for a new doctor in CBRM can wait years on the Nova Scotia family practice registry. (iStock)

Last month, the number of patients looking for a family doctor in Nova Scotia's eastern zone shot up nearly 36 per cent.

Most of those were in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality, where patients wait on average more than 400 days to get a doctor.

There are 8,388 people in Cape Breton signed up to the province's wait list for a family doctor, according to the most recent report from the provincial health authority.

Ron MacLean of Sydney has been on the province's family practice registry since he lost his doctor last year.

He said the walk-in clinic on Kings Road has been great, but he'd still rather have a family physician.

"Right now with the number of people that are on the waiting list, I don't know that I'll see a family doctor in two or three years," he said.

Wait time seems low, says doctor

According to figures released under a freedom of information request, 90 per cent of patients in CBRM who are on the registry wait under 840 days — or 2.3 years — to get a doctor. The average wait is 414 days.

Dr. Margaret Fraser, a family and emergency department physician who is also head of the Cape Breton Medical Staff Association, said that sounds low.

"It actually surprises me that it's only a little over a year," she said. "I've had patients coming into emergency who've been in the area for five and six years, and still don't have a family doctor."

Fraser says the average wait of a little over a year actually seems low. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

A provincial incentive to get doctors to take patients off the list ended last year, but Fraser said most local physicians cannot take on more patients anyway and the solution is better recruitment.

"If I take on another patient, the wait times to get in to see me will get significantly longer for the people who are already in the practice," she said. "It's a difficult balancing act."

Doctors dying, retiring or leaving practice

Matt Holland, manager of planning and development for primary health care at Nova Scotia Health, said doctors can carry thousands of patients and it does not take much to cause a spike on the wait list such as the one in CBRM last month.

"Having only a couple of providers within a geographical area leave could actually have a really significant impact in a short period of time," he said.

Holland said last month's "significant" increase was due to doctors leaving their practice, retiring or dying.

Health Minister Zach Churchill has also said some of the patients on the family practice registry are people who have moved to Nova Scotia or moved within the province.

Eastern zone wait actually lowest

Statistics compiled by Holland and obtained under the freedom of information request show the average wait for CBRM patients is higher than the eastern region as a whole.

At 385 days, the average wait time for a doctor in the eastern zone is actually the best in Nova Scotia, beating the provincial average of 479 days. 

In the central zone, people waited on average 409 days to find a doctor from the wait list, while the wait was 603 days in the northern zone and 925 days in the western zone.

Within CBRM, the highest average wait was 563 days in New Waterford, while the shortest was 74 days in the Dominion/Glace Bay area.

Some patients decline offers

In an attached briefing note, Holland said the statistics can't all be taken at face value.

For example, he said there are a "significant number" of cases where a patient is offered a doctor and they decline, but remain on the wait list and agree to take another offer later.

Statistics from Nova Scotia Health show the province recruited 21 doctors in the eastern zone last year, including nine family doctors and 12 specialists. There were 44 vacancies.

Recruitment good, despite pandemic

Fraser said the numbers are good considering the worldwide impact of COVID-19, but they could be better.

"They've done well to recruit during the pandemic, I will give them that," she said.

She said attracting doctors should include support for things like rent and equipment needed to set up a new practice.

Fraser said she is looking forward to the results from two Cape Breton business groups that are in the process of establishing a recruitment team to attract doctors in what has become a highly competitive environment.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Ayers

Reporter/Editor

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 tom.ayers@cbc.ca.

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