Health minister defends recruitment efforts as doctor waitlist soars

·3 min read
Health Minister Zach Churchill says newly recruited doctors will be sent to the areas of the province with the most need. (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)
Health Minister Zach Churchill says newly recruited doctors will be sent to the areas of the province with the most need. (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)

Nova Scotia's health minister is defending the province's recruitment efforts after the number of people on a waitlist for a new doctor swelled by 40 per cent in the last year.

Zach Churchill came under fire from Tory MLAs during question period Tuesday, as they pointed out that the waitlist now includes 64,921 names — nearly 19,000 more when compared to April 2020.

Churchill emphasized that context is important when understanding the surge.

He pointed to the number of people coming to Nova Scotia because of its low COVID-19 numbers as one of the factors.

"We have had an increase of population in this province," he said. "Thirty per cent of the people on the waitlist are new to the province or new to the community they're living in."

In March, Dr. Bob O'Brien, a physician in Cape Breton, died suddenly, leaving several thousand people without a doctor.

In another case, a physician was forced to lower his caseload by the College of Physicians and Surgeons.

"These factors obviously are outside of control of government, but what is under control is recruitment efforts," Churchill said.

Health authority says recruitment a success

At Nova Scotia Health, Katrina Philopoulos leads the recruitment department. She sees last year's efforts as a success.

When COVID-19 struck, all of her team's traditional recruitment efforts went out the window.

They could no longer attend scientific conferences or recruiting events. They also couldn't offer physicians the chance to come see Nova Scotia and tour the clinics themselves.

The team created webinars targeted at different specialties, and boosted its social media presence.

Recruiters partnered with Doctors Nova Scotia to host virtual dinners to connect with Dalhousie medical residents.

When their international recruits were suddenly in limbo because of border closures, the recruiters made complex arrangements through the immigration department to bring them to the province.

"We had to really work through on a case by case basis with each of those individuals to figure out what's the plan for them to come?" Philopoulos said.

They had to work with communities to create quarantine plans for any new arrivals.

"Finding appropriate accommodations, having groceries sent, having transportation available for a physician to go from the airport to the community. Our team really stepped up to the occasion," she said.

111 new docs hired in 2020

Nova Scotia recruited 111 doctors last year, 23 of whom were from international locations.

While it's about 20 fewer than in previous years, Philopoulos is celebrating her team.

"When you compare or you look at the work that we have done, having 111 physicians come and choose to practise in Nova Scotia is a win for us, and we're proud for that."

The new recruits offset the number of departures. Last year, 58 physicians stopped working in N.S. Of those, 62 per cent were retirements, according to Nova Scotia Health, and 36 per cent relocated.

Churchill says when new recruits do arrive this year, they'll be sent to areas most in need of a doctor.