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Nova Scotia family doctor wait list hits record high at more than 116,000 people

HALIFAX — The lack of access to primary care in Nova Scotia is "completely outrageous," says one of the more than 116,000 residents on the wait-list for a family doctor, which hit a record high this month.
A  person walks past the Halifax Infirmary hospital in Halifax on Tuesday, April 24, 2012. Nova Scotia’s registry of people in need of primary care climbed to 116,000 this month — a record high. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

HALIFAX — The lack of access to primary care in Nova Scotia is "completely outrageous," says one of the more than 116,000 residents on the wait-list for a family doctor, which hit a record high this month.

Andrew Pirillo, who's been living in Halifax since 2020, said in an interview he was shocked to learn how challenging it can be to get medical care in the city due to the growing primary care waiting list and long wait times at walk-in clinics.

"It's completely outrageous. I have so many friends that need prescriptions refilled and they just can’t get them refilled. It’s like, what? Where do we live? It’s just shocking," Pirillo said in an interview Saturday. 

The monthly primary care report shows that the number of people waiting for a family doctor or nurse practitioner is up five per cent since Sept. 1. While 1,881 names were removed from the registry, 7,415 were added.

This wait-list represents more than 11 per cent of Nova Scotia’s population.

Over the course of one year the list has grown by more than 38,000 people to reach 116,174.

Pirillo moved to Halifax from Toronto, leaving his family doctor behind. He said he's lucky to be in good health, but he wants the security of having a primary care provider.

"When the time comes that I need a doctor, I really want to have one," he said.

Officials with Nova Scotia Health have said the rising family doctor wait-list is driven by the province’s growing population and physician retirements. 

The wait-list grew most in the health zone that includes Halifax and surrounding areas, where there are more than 47,000 people in need of a family physician. 

Evelyn Hornbeck, a Halifax woman who joined the wait-list for primary care in October of last year after her family doctor retired, said waiting for primary care left her feeling like a "ticking time bomb." 

"It's stressful to have questions about your health and not have a doctor to go to," Hornbeck said in an interview Saturday. 

Right before Thanksgiving, after one year on the wait-list, Hornbeck received an email from the health authority informing her there was a spot available at a family practice. Hornbeck immediately accepted the offer, but said she is not able to celebrate as she waits to hear from the clinic.

"I'm not counting on anything until the intake with the clinic. I feel like I can't get too excited," she said.

Over the past year, Hornbeck said "the stress has been elevating and elevating," as she tries to manage her prescription of a controlled medication without a primary care provider.

“A family doctor is supposed to be your guide if you’re going through any kind of health situation. We really need that primary care and it seems to be more precarious than ever," she said.

This week, while making an announcement about new efforts to recruit and retain family doctors in Halifax, Premier Tim Houston said more needs to be done to address the family doctor shortage — but he questioned the accuracy of the wait-list.

“We know the list is a significant number, but we also know that there are people who are accessing care and attaching themselves to a primary care provider but aren’t necessarily coming off the list,” Houston told reporters Wednesday.

The health authority started an accuracy check of the wait list by calling the names on the registry in December; the check was completed in March.

Houston said the registry is “accurate in the sense that there is a problem to be solved. How accurate the actual number is, I don't know.”

Houston’s Progressive Conservatives won the August 2021 election with a campaign that focused largely on fixing the province’s health system. At the end of the summer the province expanded its virtual health care program to offer telemedicine appointments to all residents waiting for primary care.

Hornbeck says she was offended hearing the premier's comments about the wait list.

"I understand in health care there's a lot to do, but it felt so dismissive. Dismissive of how hard it is to be on this list and waiting," Hornbeck said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 15, 2022.


This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

The Canadian Press

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