Nova Scotia

Health-care vacancies constantly changing, says head of recruitment

The head of Nova Scotia's new office of health-care recruitment says his first six months on the job have laid the groundwork to fill a good number of vacancies, but Dr. Kevin Orrell was vague when asked how many vacancies currently exist.

Nova Scotia looking to hire 900 doctors over 10 years

Dr. Kevin Orrell has been tasked with leading the new health-care professional recruitment and retention office. (Robert Short/CBC)

The head of Nova Scotia's new office of health-care recruitment says his first six months on the job have laid the groundwork to fill a good number of vacancies, but Dr. Kevin Orrell was vague when asked how many vacancies currently exist.

Orrell was questioned in the legislature by the province's health committee for the first time on Tuesday.

When he started his job, the province had approximately 2,100 vacancies to fill across the health-care system.

"The numbers have been a bit varied in terms of timing and the exact person that's gathering the data," Orrell said. "We can no longer talk about the number of doctors because very few new graduates and people setting up practices for the first time will be working at a full-time equivalent of one."

That's because the doctors take on other work, such as in the emergency department or obstetrics, he explained. He said in the big picture, the province needs to hire 450 family doctors and 450 specialists over the next 10 years.

"I think we've improved things insofar as we haven't had any major net losses in terms of not being able to manage the people who are retiring or leaving practice for other reasons," Orrell told CBC after the meeting.

Dr. Kevin Orrell, head of Nova Scotia's healthcare recruitment department, speaks to healthcare workers at roundtable discussions in September 2021. (Robert Short/CBC)

He says the province will start to see bigger change when the current residents and nurses graduate in the spring.

"I think we'll see significant uptake there."

New incentive program

Orrell and his team have met with most of the medical residents placed in Nova Scotia, but until now, none of them have signed offers.

That's because he didn't want them to miss out on a new incentive program that was announced Monday. The program gives doctors up to $125,000 if they agree to set up shop in areas outside of Halifax Regional Municipality. 

Orrell says in the Sydney area alone, six of nine residents have told him they want to stay.

"I think we will have a high uptake," he said. "I would hope we get as many as possible and I think that's going to happen."

While Orrell touted new incentive programs, opposition MLAs criticized his lack of clarity on the vacancies.

"If we don't have the numbers, then how can the work be going forward?" said Susan Leblanc, the NDP's spokesperson for health and wellness. "It is too soon to judge the success. Obviously this is a huge issue and it's going to take time, but I would have liked to have seen some concrete effort towards things."

Wait list going "up and up"

Braedon Clark, the Liberal MLA for Bedford South, agreed.

"The one number we have is the 'need a family practice wait list,' which is going up and up," Clark said.

The family practice wait list was last updated in February, when 86,050 Nova Scotians registered for a doctor or nurse practitioner. That is an increase of over 14,000 since the recruitment office opened.

"Without accurate information, people get stressed, they get anxious, they get worried, and they don't know where the government is going," said Clark. "So it's actually a good thing for the government to be transparent and open with people but it seems that they want to go in the opposite direction."

Both MLAs say they hear from at least one constituent a week who is desperate for a health-care provider.

"Terrible stories where people have significant health issues or prescriptions that need to be refilled for a chronic illness and their doctor is gone," said Leblanc.

The bigger picture

During the meeting Tuesday, she tried to emphasize the need for the department to look at the bigger picture for retention issues. She wants Orrell's staff to take a close look at housing.

"We need 1,000 nurses. Where are those nurses going to live?" asked Leblanc. "They need to know that they have affordable housing to live in."

Clark, meanwhile, wants to see more progress on training foreign trained physicians. He says he met a number of them on the campaign trail last summer.

Despite the critiques, the opposition MLAs say they're happy that someone is tasked with focusing on recruitment. They both acknowledged that significant change will take time.

"It's great that the office exists, absolutely," said Clark. "We know who to ask, we know who to look for to get information on recruitment."

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