HALIFAX — Nova Scotia Health Minister Michelle Thompson on Wednesday boasted the province recruited 163 new doctors, but opposition critics said the government isn't collecting enough data to determine what effect the new physicians will have on the health system.
“I would say that 163 new physicians in our province is most certainly a success, but there is more to do,” said Thompson, who released recruitment data for the 2021-22 fiscal year, ending March 31. That number included 75 family physicians and 88 specialists.
In an email sent later in the day, the Health Department said 120 doctors were recruited within Canada and 43 were enlisted internationally. Of the new doctors, 45 were medical residents including 40 from Dalhousie University in Halifax.
Thompson didn't give details about whether the new recruits will help reduce the province’s growing list of patients who are waiting for a family doctor. As of June 1, a record-high 94,855 people were on the wait list, representing 9.5 per cent of residents in the province.
“The list is one metric that we have to obviously keep our eye on, but it is a bit of a moving target,” Thompson said. “As patients hear that their physicians are retiring they may add themselves to that list.”
The minister said the government is also looking to develop alternative ways to deliver primary health care.
According to the Health Department, there were 68 doctors who left the province's health system in the 2021-22 fiscal year, meaning there was a net gain of 95 physicians during that period. It said efforts continue to fill 149 physician vacancies as of May 31, 2022, which include 60 specialists and 89 family doctors.
Liberal member of the legislature Braedon Clark said that while any news of new doctors coming to Nova Scotia is good news, it's unclear what effect the newly recruited doctors will have on the health system, especially since a number of doctors are expected to retire over the next five to 10 years.
“It feels like we are flying a bit blind on these things,” Clark said. “If we don’t have good data to base decisions on, I’m not sure we can make good decisions.”
NDP health critic Susan Leblanc said she wonders whether enough is being done to retain doctors. The New Democrats released a letter obtained through a freedom of information request that indicates about one-third of the internationally trained doctors who came to the province in the last five years have left.
The letter, from associate deputy health minister Kathleen Trott, confirmed that 390 internationally trained doctors had registered with the province’s health system between May 1, 2017, and May 1, 2022. Of that number, 136 had opted out of the system during that period, although no reason was given.
“Should we be celebrating or do we need to be taking a really good look at how we are going to keep those doctors in Nova Scotia?” Leblanc asked.
Meanwhile, the province has yet to finish a new health-workforce management plan that sets out specific recruitment targets.
Dr. Kevin Orrell, who heads an office established by the provincial government to help recruit new doctors and other health professionals, said previous projections indicated that the province needed to recruit 100 doctors a year over a 10-year period.
“So this (new number) is very close,” Orrell said.
The province has recruited an average of 128 doctors per year over the last three fiscal years.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 22, 2022.
Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press