Nova Scotia

25,000 Nova Scotians on wait list for family doctor

The Nova Scotia Health Authority says help for more than half of the people on the wait list is coming this spring thanks to its plans to hire about two dozen nurse practitioners.

Nova Scotia Health Authority claims help is coming for 14,000 people this spring

The Canadian Institute for Health Information suspects the number of Nova Scotians without a family doctor could be as high as 95,000. (iStock)

Although the Liberals promised in 2013 that every Nova Scotian would have a family doctor if they took power, at least 25,000 people are still without one and it's unclear how long it will take to make the pledge a reality.

Figures released Wednesday by the Nova Scotia Health Authority show that as of March 6, just over 25,000 people were on a wait list for access to a family doctor or nurse practitioner. Last November, the number was about 6,000.

A non-profit organization viewed as the authority on health statistics in Canada puts the number even higher. The Canadian Institute for Health Information says about 10 per cent, or about 95,000 Nova Scotians, don't have a family doctor.

Janet Knox, CEO of the Nova Scotia Health Authority, said help is on the way in the form of nurse practitioners. She said about two dozen are being hired to work in collaboration with doctors.

"With the introduction of the 22 nurse practitioners, 14,000 new spaces in primary care will be available in the next three months," she said.

Collaborative care model

Knox said they'll work in one of 42 new collaborative care practices being set up in the province. The hope is to create as many as 78 of these facilities to look after the needs of almost every Nova Scotian who wants access to a family practice.

These practices would bring together a variety of health-care professionals and free up doctors to spend more time with the patients who need to see them.

Neither Knox nor Deputy Minister of Health Denise Perret had an answer for how long it would take to get these facilities up and running.

Lynne Harrigan is a doctor who doesn't have a family doctor. (Amy Smith/CBC)

Ironically, the woman in charge of recruiting doctors and making sure there are enough family physicians to meet the need doesn't have a family doctor because hers retired. As a result, Lynne Harrigan goes to walk-in clinics and the emergency room when she needs care.

She said she could make do without a family doctor, but she's worried about the 10 per cent on the waiting list who have a serious illness, such as cancer or a chronic disease.

Harrigan said the health authority is working on a way to identify those people and find them a family practice ahead of others.

"A lot of family doctors have huge [practice] sizes, but they can take on one or two extra and we need to identify those ones that critically need to be taken on," she said.

Cindy Forbes, a family doctor in Dartmouth and past president of both the Canadian Medical Association and Doctors Nova Scotia, said moving to a collaborative care system doesn't solve the immediate shortage of doctors.

"It's the how, how do we get there and how do we get there quickly?" she said.

Doctor says more flexibility needed

Forbes said better support mechanisms are needed for doctors, such as giving doctors greater flexibility about where they can practice, how they enter and leave the profession, as well as have more options for paying physicians other than the traditional fee-for-service system or a salary.

PC MLA Tim Houston is unimpressed with the government's plan.

"It's as if this government is trying to change the oil on a car as they're driving down the street and it's not working for Nova Scotians," he said.

Deputy Minister of Health Denise Perret said improving the system will be a continuous process.

"We're building the plane as we fly it and so it does take some time and care," she said.

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