The Restigouche region has lost four family doctors since May, leaving 5,000 people with no primary health-care provider.
Vitalité Health Network spokesperson Thomas Lizotte said Dr. Delbe Robichaud, Dr. Sylvie Mbala-Katanda, Dr. Catherine Benoît and Dr. Jean Robert Ngola all resigned. They were all family doctors who also worked at the Campbellton Regional Hospital.
Ngola was the person blamed for the COVID-19 outbreak in Campbellton, suffered racist and personal attacks and has since moved to Quebec to continue his practice.
Lizotte said Benoît and Mbala-Katanda resigned for "personal reasons," but said the doctors did not specify further. The two will be leaving their practices in November.
Dr. Robichaud retired, Lizotte said.
This leaves 21 family doctors in Restigouche County, which has a population of about 25,000.
Lizotte said a little over 5,000 patients were being treated by these doctors.Two other doctors in the area, who were only working in the emergency room, agreed to take on some of the orphaned patients.
"The number of 5,000 will therefore be considerably reduced in the coming weeks," he said in French on Thursday.
He said the health network is working to recruit 15 potential physicians, hoping to bring some of them to Campbellton in "the next few months."
The health authority is working to overcome this "recruitment problem," he said. It has struck up a recruitment committee made up of doctors and community leaders, and the Department of Health is offering financial incentives for doctors willing to relocate to the region.
Health Department spokesperson Bruce Macfarlane said four doctors leaving has "intensified an already existing primary care provider access issue."
He said physicians who their practices with minimal notice challenge the province's ability "to plan and prepare for upcoming retirements."
'It's been a tough go'
Campbellton Mayor Stéphanie Anglehart-Paulin said a centralized health authority "has a lot to do" with the employment and departure of some of the doctors.
"It's been a tough go for this hospital and these employees, having a health authority that isn't in the region and not having local administration," she said.
She said the hospital and health-care workers in Campbellton rely on Vitalité board members who "aren't necessarily in tune with what's going on."
Anglehart-Paulin started a petition saying she's concerned about the departure of the doctors, asking the health authority to stop dismissing her concerns, and asking the province to dig into why these doctors are leaving. More than 2,800 people have signed it by Thursday afternoon.
"I understand there's a doctor shortage in Canada but not to the point there's empty floors," she said.
Dalhousie Mayor Normand Pelletier said he worries about his community members. His community, about 28 kilometres east of Campbellton, has one walk-in clinic, which had to reduce its hours last year because of a lack of doctors until nurse practitioners were recruited.
"I know for a fact a lot of citizens are extremely concerned," he said.
He said he'd like to see more collaboration between the health authority and municipalities and local service districts, as well as more communication about why doctors are leaving.