N.S. doctors say not enough physicians to teach at new Cape Breton medical school

SYDNEY, N.S. — Some physicians in Cape Breton say there aren't enough doctors on the island to staff the new medical school set to welcome students in fall 2025, and one doctor is worried about its ability to meet accreditation standards.

Family physicians in Cape Breton are already stretched thin and most do not have the capacity to increase their teaching loads, family doctor Stacy MacDonald said in a recent interview.

MacDonald, in addition to caring for patients, trains medical students from Dalhousie University at her family practice in Sydney, N.S. She said staff from Cape Breton University had only recently reached out to family physicians to consult on the new school, adding that she is "shocked" it is scheduled to open in 2025.

“If we're going at the rate we are now … it will just be impossible. I don’t know who they expect to have to teach.”

There are not enough doctors on the island to teach the 30 students the university intends to enrol every year, MacDonald said. It’s already a challenge to find doctors to train the roughly 15 Dalhousie medical school students who study in Cape Breton each year, she added.

MacDonald said she and her colleagues would love to have a medical campus on Cape Breton — under the right conditions.

"I would not feel comfortable teaching in a school that was not adequate. Not adequately staffed, not adequately funded. I would not want to teach at a school that did not meet accreditation.”

When she was studying to become a doctor at Dalhousie, the university was under an accreditation review, and she said she remembers how rigorous the requirements were to maintain the designation.

Cape Breton University president David Dingwall said in an emailed statement the school has engaged with the accrediting body and he is confident it will meet those standards.

Dr. Katharine Kellock, a pediatrician in Sydney, N.S., said she and her pediatric colleagues are too busy caring for patients and training students from Dalhousie to take on responsibilities at the new medical school.

“I think that ultimately training more doctors is a good thing. But within the department of pediatrics, we have been chronically short-staffed for the last eight years,” she said in a recent interview.

Like MacDonald, Kellock also trains Dalhousie medical school students and said there are days when the clinic does not have enough physical space for them. And with a set number of daily patients at the clinic, adding more students would "dilute" their experience learning to care for children.

“Even if we did have the physical space for (students), they would be seeing too few patients a day to really get a strong clinical education in the area of pediatrics," she said.

Kellock said she has tried to bring her concerns forward to the university but consultation so far “feels very one-sided.”

“When we bring up concerns, we’re not sure they’re actually getting to the people who are doing the planning. There’s no back and forth,” she said.

Dingwall said in a statement the Cape Breton medical campus “will be successful with the engagement and support of physicians, many of whom are already providing medical education in the region.” The university has already appointed two family medicine special advisers and a dedicated physician consultant, he added.

In March 2023, Nova Scotia announced a $58.9-million investment to develop the new medical campus, with $49 million earmarked for the medical sciences building and $6.2 million for a new collaborative care clinic. Construction is underway.

In April, Premier Tim Houston said Nova Scotia would be giving the school an additional $11.6 million over the next two years for operational costs.

In P.E.I., the island’s university has twice delayed the opening of its medical school. First scheduled to welcome students in fall 2023, the University of Prince Edward Island medical school is now set to have its first class of students in August 2025, following construction delays.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 22, 2024.

— By Lyndsay Armstrong in Halifax

The Canadian Press