Nova Scotia·The Search

From the U.K. to rural Nova Scotia: why one doctor says the low pay is worth it

When it comes to the medical system, there's a long list of reasons why doctors don't want to set up practice in Nova Scotia: the low pay, the politics, the expense. Despite that, one doctor from England says moving to the province was the best decision he ever made.

Dr. Simon Bonnington chose Nova Scotia despite the option to make more in all other provinces

Dr. Simon Bonnington left England because he says the bureaucracy around health issues was suffocating. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

When Dr. Simon Bonnington first thought of leaving his home in Somerset, England, for Nova Scotia, he chalked it up to a mid-life crisis.

"I remember, and I still can, sitting in front of my computer screen back in the U.K. in my office, looking at it and thinking, 'What am I doing?'"

But the more he discussed it with his wife, Suzanne, they realized that leaving was a necessary choice.

In 2010, Simon, Suzanne, Oliver and Abigail Bonnington packed their bags, moving from a town of 45,000 to Annapolis Royal: population 500.

Bonnington says it was the best decision they could have made. 

"They'll have to carry me out of here in a box or feasibly not even that," he jokes. "My wishes would be to be scattered on the basin."

Money not a deal-breaker

Amidst the doctor shortage, the Bonningtons have become the poster family for recruitment in the province.

They are the definition of the ideal candidates: a family happy to live and commit to a rural community.

Bonnington says he was booked at least six months in advance in the U.K., whereas now he has some flexibility for same-day appointments. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

Bonnington describes the doctor shortage as an international issue. He points to a lack of doctors in the U.K. and some parts of the United States, including Hawaii, which are trying to hire more health-care workers.

Even with all those options, the family turned their attention to Nova Scotia, a place they had visited on vacation.

They knew the lifestyle would be ideal. And the fact that family doctors in the province are paid the worst in the country was something Bonnington was willing to accept.

After all, he wasn't making the decision right out of school. He already had a well-established career.

"The fact that I earn less than someone in Ontario, and Alberta, perhaps less than some physicians in the U.K., actually doesn't bother me particularly, because the quality of life that I live here and the opportunity for community engagement, gee, that's way and above.

"You cannot pay money for that."

Political interference

Bonnington's desperation to leave the U.K. behind sounds similar to complaints from some Nova Scotia physicians. He describes the red tape back home as "oppressive," and says he faced an uphill battle with political interference.

"There are interesting comparisons. Yes, certainly there is a degree of bureaucracy involved in practising medicine here in Nova Scotia, but it compares perhaps to the United Kingdom 50, maybe 60 years ago."

Annapolis Royal Mayor Bill MacDonald and Simon Bonnington became fast friends, and now plan community events together. (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

Annapolis Royal wasted no time in embracing their newest residents when they arrived. Within days of landing, Bonnington found himself to be a member of the local drama club, an event planner and watches his son play soccer.

The town's mayor, Bill MacDonald, is also a good friend. He says keeping the family busy was key in convincing them that they made the right choice.

"I think really that's the nugget that makes for a really, really good relationship, both from the perspective of physicians coming to communities, and communities embracing their doctors. Everybody come together and be part of a singular community."

Bonnington immediately saw the change in his family. His two children, Oliver and Abigail, started rock climbing at a community wall. His commute became just a few minutes.

Emphasis on spouses

But even their story is not perfect. Bonnington's wife, Suzanne was a nurse in the U.K.

She found the process to work in Canada extremely complicated, so the family decided she would give up her career in order to make the transition.

"Nova Scotia has lost the potential for a very, very good nurse — I say that because I married her."

His big piece of advice to recruiters and the health authority as they try to find more doctors: Help the spouses.

He points to a case in a nearby community where a doctor's wife couldn't find a job in education.

"If, conceivably, the health authorities and the school boards were able to get a little bit of co-operation going, maybe if the partner had been able to find a post or was encouraged into a post — I'm talking about a Canadian doctor and Canadian teacher here — then feasibly that physician would still be here."

Abigail Bonnington, who was 10 when she moved to Canada, says it was exciting to make the dramatic change. She now spends her free time at the community's climbing wall. (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

Bonnington is now helping the health authority's recruitment team. Last year, he went to England in an effort to convince more physicians that the trip across the ocean is worth it.

His mid-life crisis ended in a great decision for his family.

"I was here to stay from the day I arrived."

About the Author

Carolyn Ray

Videojournalist

Carolyn Ray is a videojournalist who has reported out of three provinces and two territories, and is now based in Halifax. You can reach her at Carolyn.Ray@cbc.ca

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