THE SEARCH

'All hands on deck': Nova Scotia's new physician recruiters playing catch-up

For five years in a row, Nova Scotia has seen more doctors leave than arrive. The pressure is on for a newly hired recruiting team to turn the loss into a positive, but the team has work to do to catch up with the rest of the country.

Nova Scotia is home to 4 recruiters and 1 team lead. By comparison, Vancouver Island has 13.

Katie Meisner, left, is working with Dr. Amanda MacDonald to help recruit doctors to Windsor, N.S., and surrounding area. (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

For five years in a row, Nova Scotia has seen more doctors leave than arrive, and each year the deficit has increased.

The pressure is on for Nova Scotia's newly hired recruiting team to turn the loss into a positive, but the group has work to do to catch up with the rest of the country. 

Just over a year ago, Nova Scotia didn't even have an official recruiter for the central zone, which includes the Halifax Regional Municipality. Now, it's Katie Meisner's job.

"It's very busy, we are full throttle all day. When it's busy it's really busy, and when it's not busy it's still busy," Meisner said.

"I have facilitated a site visit this week already. I have two candidates coming through, overlapping schedules next week. I have a candidate coming through the next week. Then we go into recruitment-fair season."

Other provinces, including B.C., armed its communities with recruiters in 2014. On Vancouver Island alone, which has a smaller population than Nova Scotia, there are nine division recruiters who represent communities, and another four who work for the health authority. 

We don't hide behind some of the issues that we face, but we really try to … showcase the highlights of what a physician can do here in Nova Scotia.- Katie  Meisner , NSHA physician recruiter

In Nova Scotia, recruitment became a part of the newly amalgamated health authority in 2015. There are four recruiters — one each zone — and their team lead. Two of the team members started last year, including Meisner.

"We are a new team," she said. "So we are in our first year of really building mode. And we definitely hope to see more team members joining us."

The team lead is Joanne MacKinnon, who worked for the Health Department before amalgamation. 

"We've never stopped recruiting, no one has. But it's to implement the new process and get everyone in place at the same time," MacKinnon said. "It would create challenges in any industry, any area. We're certainly looking forward to the next steps."

Emphasis on work-life balance

Physician recruiting is still a relatively new industry, one that has evolved because of the doctor shortage.

It's also something that doesn't happen overnight. Recruiters across the country estimate it takes 18 months from initial contact for a doctor to start working in a community. 

The process includes ensuring they can be licensed in a province, doing site visits to find a community and clinic, and then the actual move.

"So as [the recruiters] get more comfortable in their roles, certainly they'll be working at a higher capacity as well," said MacKinnon. "They really are working all hands on deck right now for sure."

Meisner's zone is about to face many more losses. In Dartmouth, 40 per cent of the family physicians are expected to retire in the next five years. She said she feels the pressure from outside, but the recruiters are focusing on the task at hand.

"We do our best to stay positive in the climate," she said. "We don't hide behind some of the issues that we face, but we really try to remain positive and showcase the highlights of what a physician can do here in Nova Scotia."

One of the issues they don't hide is the pay, which is the lowest in the country. But Meisner said they're seeing successes by emphasising lifestyle and work-life balance.

"We are re-engaging with communities, which is phenomenal, because it's a key support to recruitment," said Meisner. "So we are starting to revive some of those relationships."

One of those relationships Meisner has built is in Windsor, where pharmacist Krista Trider has partnered with the health authority to open a new collaborative-care clinic. 

Potential doctors looking to settle in Windsor are given a tour of the community, learning about everything from local schools to the town's famed giant pumpkin races. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The clinic is almost ready to go, but so far there's no doctors to help open its doors in the fall.

Meisner and Trider are now showing candidates around Windsor, giving them community tours, teaching them about everything from the schools to the town's famous giant pumpkin races.

"It's been a positive experience," said Trider. "We just have to believe the right people will want to be here and we will be able to find the doctors that we're looking for."

'Set up … for success'

Meisner is also hoping that by building stronger community connections, it will help create a bigger network as they try to support the spouses of doctors.

She said one of the bests part of her job is when, after months of hard work, a doctor makes a decision to set up shop. 

"We really want to set our physicians up for success."

Both Meisner and her boss, Joanne MacKinnon, agree their recruiting efforts could benefit from more help.

"We'd probably be like kids in a candy store," said MacKinnon if the team expanded. 

"You're always making the most with what you have. We've been very fortunate, particularly this fiscal year, that we've had a fair bit of support in investment in what we're doing. We'd never say no to more. I don't know anyone who would."

Health Minister Randy Delorey says he's keeping an eye on the work being done by the province's physician recruitment team. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

In New Brunswick, there are five recruiters between the province's two health authorities.  

When asked if the Nova Scotia team is under-resourced compared to other provinces, Health Minister Randy Delorey said he's keeping an eye on their work.

"I've made it very clear with the health authority how important our recruitment initiatives are for us to move forward. We've made it clear that primary care and recruitment is a part of that," Delorey said. 

"We're confident as we go through the [budget] process that we're providing the resources, the financial resources to the NSHA that they need to deliver on their mandate."

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