Nova Scotia

Doctor program for underserved areas won't be ready until the spring

It will be another few months before the provincial health authority is able to launch a doctor rotation program for underserved parts of Nova Scotia.

Program on hold until at least four doctors can be signed

Saskia Geerts's wait for a family doctor has lasted five years and there's no end in sight.

The Digby resident and her husband have been without a doctor since 2011. It's a particular challenge when she needs to get a prescription renewed, which usually means a trip to the emergency department. She's also travelled to Annapolis Royal.

"In Digby the wait time was six to eight hours in the emergency room," she said.

Two-year waitlist

Geerts is proactive, calling whenever a new doctor advertises for patients and going on a variety of waitlists.

"I've put myself on waiting lists in Clare, in Bear River [and] in Annapolis. Most places right now don't even put people on a waiting list anymore. In Clare they did but they told me, 'Well, the waiting list right now is about two years long.'"

She's not alone. The provincial health authority is in the process of merging all of the lists in the province of people without doctors to identify the most pressing areas of need, information that's supposed to become available next month.

Locum program delayed

In the meantime, attempts to launch a locum-style program that would rotate doctors through underserved areas over the course of a year has hit another snag.

The problem is timing, said Dr. Lynne Harrigan, vice-president of medicine and integrated health services for the health authority. Because the program wasn't launched until August, they missed the ability to sign medical residents.

While there's been "tremendous interest" in the program, so far no one is signed up for spots in Halifax, Digby, Shelburne, Tatamagouche, Pictou and Cape Breton, Harrigan said.

At least four of the eight spots must be filled before the program can begin.

"Our hope is that with the new program of residents, which really would be May [or] June, that we would be able to actually successfully get an adequate number to run the program."

Critics condemn lack of progress

In the meantime, Harrigan said recruitment efforts continue and by the spring some of the most pressing areas could have doctors. If that happens, new sites for the locum program would be selected, she said.

Opposition health critics say the government has known all along doctor shortages are a problem and isn't doing enough to address it.

"The problem continues to get worse and there's no answers from the province itself," said Tory MLA Chris d'Entremont, noting the Liberals have failed to fulfil a 2013 campaign promise of a doctor for every Nova Scotian.

New Democrat MLA Dave Wilson pointed to his former government's creation of collaborative emergency centres to bring more care to underserved communities.

Still no news

While the Liberals say collaborative family clinics are on the way, that could take up to 10 years. Wilson said that's too long.

"We're seeing now — after going into their almost fourth year now — no real initiatives that the government can turn to to say, 'Look, we've improved health-care delivery in Nova Scotia.'"

As for Geerts, she said the word around town is two new doctors are on the way, but so far those are only rumours.

"We haven't actually been told anything formally."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Gorman is a reporter in Nova Scotia whose coverage areas include Province House, rural communities, and health care. Contact him with story ideas at michael.gorman@cbc.ca

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