N.S. Health exec pleads with doctors to change the story around recent retirements

Dr. Nicole Boutilier, vice-president medicine for Nova Scotia Health, told doctors in an electronic newsletter that the province is setting up a hotline for physicians who need help and also a retention task force.  (CBC - image credit)
Dr. Nicole Boutilier, vice-president medicine for Nova Scotia Health, told doctors in an electronic newsletter that the province is setting up a hotline for physicians who need help and also a retention task force. (CBC - image credit)

Thousands of Nova Scotia physicians received an email Thursday imploring them to help "change the narrative" after doctors in several news stories blamed a lack of support from the province for their decision to retire.

Dr. Nicole Boutilier, vice-president medicine for Nova Scotia Health, issued the plea as part of a regular Nova Scotia Health electronic newsletter.

"Recent media has been dominated with family doctors announcing retirements and a lack of support to stay in practice from Nova Scotia Health and health system partners," wrote Boutilier.

"This is not the message our teams have been working very hard to send and we want to change this narrative immediately to reflect that commitment."

"We do not want physicians to choose retirement until they are ready to end their career. And, when you are ready to retire, we want you to feel supported and celebrated for your contributions.

Boutilier goes on to ask those who intend to retire and would like someone to take on their practice to "give as much notice as possible."

Physician hotline

Nova Scotia Health has set up a "physician hotline" which will be available starting Monday for doctors to request help.

"This line (1-833-876-1724) will be staffed from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mon-Fri by members of the medical affairs team with a commitment to follow up to the physician within one business day," said Boutilier.

The organization has also set up an "interagency task force for physician issues and practice retention" to come up with "flexible and supportive solutions" to problems raised by doctors who are struggling and considering leaving their practices.

"Our communications team will also work to shift the narrative around retirement for physicians and celebrate the accomplishments of long-serving medical staff when they are ready for retirement," said Boutilier. "Physicians should not leave their long-standing service with guilt about leaving their patients behind, we want to create a culture of celebrating your service."

'Critical issue'

Dr. Johanna Graham along with three colleagues plan to close their South End Family Practice next fall. She says she hopes Thursday's message is a signal the province is ready to accept physician retention is a "critical issue right now."

Paul Palmeter/CBC
Paul Palmeter/CBC

"I really hope other doctors who are on the verge of closing their practices will actually get help before it's too late, so far fewer patients will be left without a family doctor," said Graham. "They are realising now that they probably need to be more responsive to requests such as ours."

Graham took issue with the suggestion she and others who have closed their practices did not ask for help well beforehand.

"I think there is some suggestion that we haven't been doing our part, but I think really we have," said Graham. "I know in our case for certain that we did give them a lot of notice that if we didn't get help we were going to have to close the practice.

"I think they felt that our notice that we actually were going to close was too short, but they hadn't reached out to us with any help. So that's what we had to do."

Late Friday afternoon, Boutilier told CBC News her email was not a criticism of Graham or any other doctor changing their practice.

"That wasn't the message at all," she said. "The message is one of clear support for our doctors out there practicing.

"We're not getting into somebody did this or somebody did that. That's not the point."

'The narrative'

Liberal Leader Zach Churchill said the email clearly laid out the Houston government key concern — the story rather than the problem.


"This is about changing the media narrative around health care, and that's what this government is focused on," said Churchill. "It's black and white right there.

"They want to change the bad press they're getting around health care.

"It's not about patients, it's not about people. It's about what people are saying about them, and that is a clear indication of where this government's priorities are."

NDP MLA Lisa Lachance saw the email as a subtle attempt to muzzle doctors critical of the system.

"If I was a family doctor it would not take much for me to read through that letter and, kind of feel, you just want me to shut up so that people don't hear the criticism." said Lachance.

Boutilier denied this "internal memo" was a plea to doctors to change the optics of their situations or stop complaining publicly.

"No, what I want to change is that retiring physicians have a way to keep their patients in the system being seen and having the best opportunity to do that," Boutilier.

"We want people to stay in practice, it's very, very important to us, both for their own selves to be able to celebrate careers that are often over decades and also for our patients."