Newfoundland and Labrador officials say solutions to the province's doctor shortage will take time — but mayors of communities without physicians say it's time residents don't have.
Thousands of people in Newfoundland and Labrador already don't have a family doctor, and physicians are leaving rural areas almost weekly — including the communities of Burgeo and Flowers Cove in western Newfoundland and Forteau in Labrador, according to a release from the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association on Wednesday.
Without a doctor nearby, said Flowers Cove Mayor Keith Billard on Thursday, some residents will be forced into a desperate situation.
"A lot of people will have to make a choice: move out to a city that has a little bit more health care, or stay in their community and die. That's the choice they got," Billard said.
In Gander on Thursday, Premier Andrew Furey attempted to ease anxiety about the doctor shortage — though he said he can't promise to bring a doctor to every community.
"What we are promising is to support the people in the communities for their health-care needs and promising to recreate the system so that it's more sustainable. There's no one who can look at the current system and say we should just continue to shovel money into it because it hasn't worked and it won't work."
Virtual appointments, collaborative care part of solution: Furey
There is no quick fix to the problems in the province's health-care system, said Furey, but the system is undergoing a "transition."
"What we want is to use this time of disruption, this time of the system being broken, to recreate the system so that it is providing the work-life balance for family doctors that they require."
Furey pointed to virtual health care and collaborative-care clinics as part of the solution to making the health-care system more sustainable, especially for rural areas.
Burgeo Mayor William Bowles said virtual health care has a place but isn't a substitute for an in-person appointment — especially for older residents.
"The average age in the community [is] over 55. So, you know, there's a good many of them that not that … is not used to technology and doing stuff that way," he said.
Burgeo, a two-hour drive from the nearest hospital, is losing one of its two doctors. Another doctor is supposed to arrive by the end of June, but Bowles said he's afraid the remaining doctor will burn out. Bowles said a nurse practitioner could help alleviate that stress.
The government is also ramping up collaborative-care clinics, a model that involves different types of health-care professionals — including nurse practitioners — working as a team. The 2022 provincial budget included $6 million to expand collaborative care, part of $3.6 billion in health-care spending overall.
The provincial government is adding two new collaborative-care clinics in the Eastern Health region, and one each in the Central Health, Western Health and Labrador-Grenfell Health regions. Furey said he views collaborative-care clinics as part of an overall transition toward team-based health care in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Communities on edge
Hermitage-Sandyville, a community in southern Newfoundland that recently lost a doctor, is a potential site for one of those collaborative-care clinics, said Mayor Steve Crewe.
"We're hoping that it'll come sooner than later," he said.
Still, without a doctor close by — and no immediate fix — Crewe said residents of Hermitage-Sandyville and the surrounding areas are on edge.
"People are very worried about it, because an accident or a sickness can happen at any time, and to know that they've gotta drive 2½ hours just to get to a hospital, and they don't know how long it's going actually take to see somebody at the hospital is even worse," Crewe said.
Progressive Conservative MHA Chris Tibbs said it's taken too long for the government to begin fixing the province's doctor shortage. Tibbs said he'd like to see the government recruit high school students in rural areas who would like to study medicine with the goal of returning to their communities.
"We need to look outside the box for different solutions. How are we going to attract more people here?"