New group to help address doctor shortage

By Lois Ann Dort, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    
August 12 2020

GUYSBOROUGH – In recent months, Guysborough and area citizens have woken up to the harsh reality that healthcare in the area is not what it used to be. In years past, people in this area would hear of ER closures in rural hospitals across the province and think, ‘That will never happen here.’ Those days are gone. As of this month a sign has been installed at the entrance to Guysborough Memorial Hospital to indicate whether the ER is open or closed. Service is intermittent and few residents can keep track of the ever-changing hours of service.

The reduction in service hours at the Guysborough Memorial Hospital ER is due to a physician shortage, which has been covered extensively in this paper in recent months. There are currently only two doctors on staff where at least four are needed to maintain full-service hours.

While the doctor shortage is starting to hit home for residents due to the ER closures, the problem has been recognized for years. And it has not been ignored. The Guysborough Memorial Hospital Foundation has worked tirelessly to attract new doctors to this area and has invested significant funds on recruitment efforts.

Last Thursday, a meeting of the newly organized Guysborough District Working Group on Hospital Services was held to discuss what the community in general could do to address the doctor shortage in this area. Nancy O’Regan, co-chair of the group, spoke to The Journal about the meeting on the weekend.

“The Hospital Foundation has done a great deal to attract doctors to the area,” said O’Regan, “and they are frustrated.” The meeting held at the Chedabucto Lifestyle Complex on Thursday, August 6, was convened to discuss, “What could we do to get people calling their MLA and to get people interested?” She said.

“This is not just about an ER closure. This is about us having one doctor and one who has really been waiting very patiently to retire, where we actually need four to run full service in this location, with full ER and all the services we’ve been used to. We don’t just need one, we need a few doctors. They’re all frustrated,” said O’Regan.

There were approximately 25 participants in the meeting on Thursday, some attending in person and others through video conference. Those invited to attend were several constituents from each district of the Municipality of the District of Guysborough and representatives of stakeholder groups in the healthcare system such as paramedics, CUPE, Hospital Auxiliary, Nurses Union, Community Health Board, pharmacists, a wide cross-section of citizens and healthcare organizations.

Nova Scotia Health Authority representatives Angela MacArthur, Director of Integrated Health Rural Sites and Brett MacDougall, Eastern Zone Executive Director of Operations attended the meeting and “laid out everything they are doing, everything they have done and some of the issues and challenges they are facing,” said O’Regan.

Local MLA Lloyd Hines provided the group with a community toolkit outlining how communities can support recruitment efforts. There was discussion about the strategies the community can promote, such as developing community profiles and highlighting unique community needs.

Nova Scotians take pride in their welcoming nature, but O’Regan told The Journal that to recruit and keep doctors, we need to do more than put out a welcome mat. “There’s room for a welcoming committee; we do a good job when doctors come in to find out about the place. We tour them around, show them the best. Once they actually come—maybe we need a group of people who work with them over a year or two to make sure they are integrated and comfortable and make sure they have everything they need to stay here. To build relationships…to make those families feel like they fit.”

During the two-hour meeting there was also discussion about defining services and the need for public education around what services are available, where and what they should be used for.  “For example,” said O’Regan, “not many people know our pharmacists have expanded their scope of practice during COVID. They can renew prescriptions; they can check other things—I don’t think the public knows about. We want to make sure, when you go to the ER, what does an emergency really mean. If it is something that should be done at the clinic, please don’t go. Please use the services as they are specified and appropriately.”

Another point made during the meeting was that recruitment should, in some ways, start at home. There was discussion regarding youth and the need to entice local students to enter healthcare fields.

O’Regan said that the general consensus was that there was support for moving forward with a working group to support the Hospital Foundation and NSHA recruitment efforts. She anticipates another meeting of the provisional working group will be held in the near future. “They are looking at new models of care for service delivery in rural areas…I think there’s room for a whole lot of innovation.”

Charla Cosgrove also attended the meeting last Thursday. She works for the Guysborough Memorial Hospital Foundation in a recruitment position but was at the meeting as a private citizen last week. She told The Journal in an online interview, “I think that the sharing of this information on the reality of the crisis we are facing is important. Everyone was able to get a clearer picture of what’s been done in the past, and what’s happening now. Everyone who was there was eager to be a part of this group going forward and I am sure more will come to the table. As Paul Long, co-chair, said in his opening remarks, ‘This is not a committee to find blame, it’s to focus on positive change so our residents get the emergency healthcare they deserve.’”