N.S. to face wave of physician retirements as wait-list for primary care remains high

By Lyndsay Armstrong, The Canadian Press

HALIFAX — Nova Scotia doctors are facing extreme burnout amid a labour shortage that risks worsening with a looming wave of retirements, says the former head of the association representing physicians in the province. 

Dr. Leisha Hawker, former head of Doctors Nova Scotia, told a legislative committee Tuesday that stress among emergency and family physicians is at an all-time high as they work to provide care in a system that has more than 200 posted doctor vacancies.

“There are a lot of physicians who are being asked on a daily basis to take on more patients as they’re already struggling to provide timely access to care to their current roster of patients,” Hawker said in an interview following the committee meeting.

Hawker told the committee that about one-quarter of family physicians in the province are aged 60 and older and may be considering retirement. And as the province’s doctors age, so do their patients, which Hawker said increases the complexity of care.

“The level of stress on family doctors and emergency physicians has really quite drastically increased since I started to practice about 10 years ago,” Hawker said in an interview.

She said that as of March 4, there were 213 physician vacancy job postings in Nova Scotia and 129 of them were in family medicine.

Meanwhile, as of March 1, about 16 per cent of Nova Scotians — 156,000 people — were on the provincial wait-list for primary care.

Recent changes to Nova Scotia doctors’ collective agreement and payment model leave Hawker “cautiously optimistic” that things will improve, despite the labour shortages, she said.

A spokesperson with the provincial office for health-care recruitment said that between April 1, 2023, and Jan. 31, 2024, the province added 96 net new physicians to the health system. Of those 96 doctors, 13 of them are in family medicine.

Doctors Nova Scotia said there are 1,343 family physicians practising in Nova Scotia — including doctors who don’t have an office practice or roster of patients, and those who work in emergency medicine, addictions medicine, palliative care and as hospitalists. 

Janet Hazelton, president of the Nova Scotia Nurses’ Union, told the committee Tuesday that burnout and stress among nurses is the highest it has been in the 22 years she’s been head of the union. And like doctors, who are managing increasingly complex cases as the population ages, nurses, too, are caring for more people with serious needs.

“The workload is harder and we have less nurses. So when you add that together, it’s not a good scene,” she said in an interview.

Hazelton said there are about 1,500 nursing vacancies across Nova Scotia’s health system.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 19, 2024.

Lyndsay Armstrong, The Canadian Press

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