Nova Scotia

How Cape Breton's health-care overhaul could woo new doctors

The head of the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union says the plan to build new collaborative centres and expand two hospitals in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality could be the boost needed to attract new health-care workers to the region.

'The little old shabby offices ... just aren't that attractive anymore,' says ER chief

The Cape Breton Regional Hospital in Sydney will be expanded. (Robert Short/CBC)

The head of the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union says the overhaul of health care in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality could be the boost the area needs to help attract new health-care workers to the region.

The Liberal government announced Monday the Northside and New Waterford hospitals will be closed and replaced with new community health centres, while Cape Breton Regional Hospital and Glace Bay Hospital will be expanded.

The news comes at a time when the number of specialist vacancies in the area jumped from 15 to 22 since March 31. 

"It's hard to attract specialists to an area if you don't provide them with the latest and greatest tools to do their work," said Janet Hazelton, president of the nurses union.

Hazelton compared the changes to what she experienced while working in Truro in 2012 when the new Colchester East Hants Health Centre opened.

"[Specialists] are not interested in coming unless they can treat most of the patients in the hospital that they're working in," she said.

"They like to be able to work on their specialty, and work on it in their own facility, and not necessarily send people off to another tertiary care centre where they don't see the completion of that individual's case."

Vacancies increase

At the contentious announcement Monday, Dr. Paul MacDonald, the department head for internal medicine at Cape Breton Regional Hospital, also pointed out that new facilities could help recruitment efforts.

The Nova Scotia Health Authority says there are currently 22 vacancies for specialists for the eastern zone, and 6½ vacant family doctor positions. The zone includes the Cape Breton, Antigonish and Guysborough areas. 

The doctor shortage is a national problem, and towns across the country have seen success from testing the adage "if you build it, they will come."

Goderich, Ont., raised money to build the Maitland Valley Medical Centre as a way to attract doctors. Fifteen of the town's physicians now work in the building, which also offers blood testing and other medical services. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

The town council of Goderich, Ont., for example, surveyed its doctors during the peak of its shortage and found facilities to be a major recruiting hurdle.

The town invested in a multi-million dollar collaborative centre, similar to what is being pitched for New Waterford and North Sydney, and used that as a tool to recruit new physicians.

The plan was so successful, the facility has since doubled in size to accommodate the staff.

'We'll lose good people'

But the former CEO of the Cape Breton District Health Authority is concerned that the immediate turmoil could scare off potential recruits.

"How would you sell Cape Breton to a new physician coming to New Waterford or North Sydney when you can't answer a basic question like where am I going to work? Where am I going to be?" John Malcolm said on CBC Cape Breton's Mainstreet.

John Malcom, the former CEO of the Cape Breton District Health Authority, said he worries about the turmoil created by the decision to close two hospitals will scare off recruits. (Nova Scotia Health Authority)

He said the government has made a critical mistake by not consulting the people who work in the facilities.

"I'm worried we'll lose good people who are just going to say, 'Why bother staying if they're not going to ask us for our opinions?' We have excellent young family physicians over in the North Sydney and some in the Waterford area. You don't respect their opinion, there's lots of places that will."

If the projects are completed as promised, he said that could eventually be an advantage for recruitment.

One part of the solution

Dr. Chris Milburn, ER chief for the health authority's eastern zone, said his experience with teaching has also shown him that facilities and modern technology can play a significant role in a young physician's decision where to practise.

"The little old shabby offices that I started out with in old buildings just aren't that attractive anymore when docs have a lot of choice in where to go," he said. "It's important to have good facilities."

But he points out it's only a piece of several factors.

He said the province must look again at physician salaries, which remain some of the lowest in the country. 

Milburn also believes that the community needs to play a bigger role in recruitment efforts and offer a positive outlook.

The business community has shown leadership in that area. It commissioned a movie and built a website for physician recruits.

But Milburn is encouraging the community to take it a step further. He said the area needs to stop considering recruitment "somebody else's job."

It's a lesson that Truro learned recently. At least seven physicians are retiring or leaving that community in 2018, and the town council announced it is joining health-care leaders and nearby communities to consolidate recruitment efforts. 

As of June 1, 2,787 people in the eastern zone were on the waiting list for a family doctor. 

Read more stories at CBC Nova Scotia


  • A previous version of this story stated that as of June 1, 5,583 people in the eastern zone were on a waitlist for a family doctor. In fact, as of June 1, 2,787 people in the eastern zone were on a waitlist for a family doctor.
    Jun 26, 2018 6:30 PM AT