Nova Scotia is experiencing a health-care crisis amid a lack of doctors, long wait times for ambulances and even longer waits in emergency departments, and the fishing town of Yarmouth on the South Shore is no exception.
Many residents of Yarmouth and surrounding areas are without a family physician and those who are lucky enough to have one have to wait months to get an appointment.
Doctors living in town are expected to all take their turn at working at the emergency clinic, which is swarmed with people with non-emergency issues, due to the town not having any walk-in clinics available. That forces people to go to the emergency department for just about everything, from birth control, to post-surgery intravenous antibiotics, to insulin.
Debbie Roberts suffered a heart attack in 2012 and has had no cardiac followup since because she doesn’t have a family doctor. She also has arthritis, fibromyalgia and hypertension, which she needs to be medicated for. However, without a doctor, it is not possible for her to get prescriptions.
“It means going to sit in outpatients for nine, 10, 12 hours. I can’t afford to do that. I just don’t have time to sit in outpatients for hours and hours,” said Roberts.
Roberts isn’t alone. Most residents in the area are in similar situations. Annette Smith-Rodgerson’s brother had a tooth infection that eventually got into his bloodstream, causing a major infection. He had to go to Halifax to have surgery on his back.
He was in debilitating pain. There weren’t any ambulances to transfer him from Yarmouth to Halifax for his surgery so his wife and sister had to prepare a makeshift bed in the back of their SUV and transport him to Halifax themselves.
The same situation occurred on the way home.
Upon arriving home, her brother was scheduled to have a nurse from the Victorian Order of Nurses (VON) come into his home and administer intravenous antibiotics. He was then told the VON was understaffed and they were unable to come into his home to give him his required post-op antibiotics.
Because her brother didn’t have a family doctor either, he had to go sit in the emergency department for hours like every one else to receive the care he needed.
“It was something that took 15-20 minutes to do and because he didn’t have a family doctor to go back on, this is something he had to do until the VON could come back into the house,” said Smith-Rodgerson.
Smith-Robgerson says she knows that all the health-care workers are doing their very best but they are understaffed. Her stepfather was also a physician in Yarmouth with 4,000 patients and worked until the day he died at age 66. She believed the workload ultimately killed him.
Trish McCourt, who runs the Tri-County Women’s Centre, says it’s hard to see so many people without a family doctor. She considers herself lucky. She drives 45 minutes to see her doctor, but for many people who don’t have access to a vehicle, it makes it impossible for them to travel with hardly any public transit. The town only has one small bus.
“People are being referred to the emergency department for just about anything and if it’s something that requires any kind of followup, like prescriptions that people are on long-term for chronic illness, that’s really problematic because the followup that happens then is so much more limited,” said McCourt.
Many people haven’t seen a doctor in 15 or 20 years so McCourt says one short visit still wouldn’t help much.
In response to the number of residents without a family doctor, The Credit Union and the Yarmouth Chamber of Commerce have started to build a seven-room housing unit for medical residents and learners in order to attract and keep health-care workers in the area.
Kerri Muise, the chair of the board at the Chamber of Commerce, is excited about the work that is underway.
“There are still a lot of patients that do not have doctors and that’s as a result of doctors leaving, retiring. It’s a common problem in many rural communities. So that’s why about two years ago, we as a chamber decided to help with the situation and help the recruiters who are at NSHA and attract physicians to our area,” said Muise.
This has been something that the community has struggled with in the past. The housing that will be provided will be free of charge.
“By doing this, we level the playing field. We make Yarmouth more attractive and more affordable for people to come here and check it out,” said Rebecca Cassidy, the community navigator for the Yarmouth Medical Recruitment Partnership.
McCourt is in full support of the initiative but she isn’t entirely sure this idea will help retain doctors in the area.
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“I just don’t know how much that strategy will help. I mean, I’m sure it’ll help some but we need to do more than that. Anyone who’s coming to Yarmouth who is not from the area is more likely to eventually move on,” she said.
“If we could get physicians who are from the area who have ties to the community, they’ll be more likely to stay.”
Cassidy said she is hopeful it will just take time.
“The composition of a practice now is very different than it was 20 years ago so we need to adapt our staffing levels accordingly,” said Cassidy.
The house is expected to be ready this fall.
Nova Scotia’s health minister told Global News earlier this year that a new four-year agreement with Doctors Nova Scotia would help address the doctor shortage in the province.
Heather Johnson, president of Doctors Nova Scotia, says the association has been in discussion with all three parties about the future of health care ahead of the upcoming provincial election.