A deficit of doctors is pitting N.L. communities against each other, warn mayors

Last month, Bonavista's town council announced plans to offer its own incentives to convince doctors to move to the community. (Darrell Roberts/CBC - image credit)
Last month, Bonavista's town council announced plans to offer its own incentives to convince doctors to move to the community. (Darrell Roberts/CBC - image credit)
Darrell Roberts/CBC
Darrell Roberts/CBC

A shortage of physicians in Newfoundland and Labrador is creating competition between municipalities — and the stakes are getting higher.

About a month ago, Bonavista's town council announced plans to offer additional money and land — on top of existing provincial incentives — to attract physicians to the region.

Speaking with CBC News last week, Mayor John Norman acknowledged that offering additional incentives could give Bonavista an advantage over other communities.

"In my role as a municipal leader, I can only look at Bonavista and what Bonavista can do," he said.

Bonavista residents have been protesting closures of health-care services; multiple services closed in February. The emergency room was scheduled to be closed for more than 18 days, which one woman says resulted in tragic consequences for her 78-year-old father.

According to Eastern Health, March will be an improvement — the health authority has found locums and emergency room staff to keep the ER open for at least 19 days.

But Bonavista isn't the only rural community where residents struggle to access doctors — according to the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association, 136,000 residents across the province don't have a primary health care provider.

WATCH | Bonavista Mayor John Norman says the town will do what it takes to attract doctors 

Last year, Fogo Island lost its only physician — a devastating blow for residents. Fogo Island Mayor Andrew Shea said the town council has become more involved in recruitment efforts but won't be able to offer its own incentives.

"We have to be very careful with our cash," he said. "I think what it does is it pits community against community. The ones with the most money — they're going to get the doctors."

Shea said he's concerned about what will happen if more municipalities begin offering incentives to attract health-care workers.

"If you're a small town how can you compete with the bigger towns? How can we compete with Grand Falls, Gander, Corner Brook?"

Shea said the town council is trying to promote Fogo Island as a good place to live, and its efforts are paying off — the island will have two new doctors by the end of the summer.

"We see a light at the end of the tunnel now. A very bright light," he said.


Michael Tiller, mayor of New-Wes-Valley, said the town council has discussed offering its own incentives after a year of regular emergency room closures.

But he has reservations.

"I think that we want to get people in our area that want to come to our area, that want to stay, and to adopt our town as their own rather than somebody that's coming because they got the highest price."

A seat at the health-care table

Deatra Walsh, Municipalities N.L. communications and advocacy director, said municipalities have a role in health care, but questioned whether they should be putting funds toward recruitment.

"Should municipalities be bearing the burden of essential services that is, you know, at other levels of government and to a financial detriment? No, you know, this is not the way forward," she said.

Walsh said she does worry that municipalities will be forced to compete with each other for doctors.

"There isn't necessarily that human resource or fiscal capacity or planning capacity to do this kind of thing," she said.

Darrell Roberts/CBC
Darrell Roberts/CBC

She pointed to the Health Accord N.L., a 10-year plan for the province's health-care system, which recommends the establishment of regional social and health networks which would include municipalities.

"They need to have, again, you know, a seat at the table and be an equal partner so we can participate in this conversation altogether and make the solutions that meet everybody's needs," she said.

Norman said the town hasn't had to make good on its incentives offer, but he expects it will soon. He said the incentives will likely cost "tens of thousands."

"Every option is on the table. Council is not closing the door on any discussion. It hasn't reached that point where we're really talking about exact dollars and land transfers," he said.

Still, Norman said the situation is looking up.

Eastern Health recently approved funding for two new physician and two new nurse practitioner positions. Norman said the health authority is in discussions with some doctors about potentially moving to Bonavista.

"Steps in the right direction, so we're very happy about that," he said.

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