Theresa Zukauskas and her husband Walter Zukauskas looking for a family doctor — again.
The couple has gone through three family doctors in the last five years.
Theresa, 71, was recently informed their physician was leaving the city and that the couple will be without a doctor starting Nov.3.
“We are not the only people in this situation. We are the tip of the iceberg,” she said.
Government ‘would like us to die’
Theresa, a retired school teacher, says she and Walter are now the face of health care in the province.
“We’re the population that isn’t being attended to by family physicians,” she said Friday.
Walter, a 75-year-old retired Dalhousie professor, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2010 and relies on a wheelchair to get around.
Theresa says the couple had to sell their home and have paid thousands of dollars out-of-pocket to get specialized equipment for Walter.
Even with home care seven days a week, Theresa says Walter needs a family doctor to monitor the progression of his disease.
“I’m pretty proactive and I’m willing to do whatever it is I have to do to get a doctor for Walter,” she said.
“My honest opinion is, that as a seniors group, the government would just like us to die so they don’t have to worry about getting us family doctors,” said Theresa.
Couple on a wait list for doctor, no idea when spot will open up
Theresa says she relies on her family physician to not only help her husband but also herself when managing his condition. That’s because she is responsible for administering his medicine and has often called the doctor’s office for advice when issues arise.
Theresa says once she found out her doctor was leaving she contacted 811 — Nova Scotia’s telecare service — and was placed on a wait list for a new physician.
In March, the Nova Scotia Health Authority said there were 25,210 residents already on a wait list for a family doctor.
WATCH: Nova Scotia Health Authority has no timelines to address family doctor shortage
Theresa says 811 suggested she take Walter to a walk-in clinic until the couple are able to find a new doctor. It’s an idea that Theresa says won’t work for her husband.
“My husband’s in a wheelchair. I’m not doing a walk-in clinic,” she said.
“They’re understaffed and the doctors have no commitment to the people because they’re not with them all the time.”
Theresa says the province needs more doctors and to stop burdening them with bureaucracy and get an actual plan in place.
“You can’t just say, ‘Oh, we’re gonna recruit new doctors. You actually have to have a strategy, a step-by-step plan,” she said. “We need a doctor and I expect Mr. McNeil to find me one. He says it’s not a problem so find me one.”
NDP call for $120 million investment in healthcare
Gary Burrill, leader of the N.S. NDP, brought up the Zukauskas’ situation Friday at the provincial legislature, asking Premier Stephen McNeil multiple times if the province was in a health-care crisis, a question the premier did not directly answer.
“Mr. Speaker, the Zukauskas’ have demonstrated significant medical need but cannot find a doctor. Does the Premier not believe that their circumstances constitute a crisis?” Burrill asked.
“As we know, there are families across the province who are looking for and require a health-care team, a family physician,” said McNeil.”We know when those families, the anxiety that families feel when they don’t have access to primary care. That’s why we’re continuing to work with our partners very hard to ensure that we have in place the appropriate health-care teams.”
“Over 100,000 people don’t have a doctor,” said Burrill.
“What will it take for the premier to admit there is a crisis? People are suffering and urgent action is required.”
Burrill believes the province should invest $120 million into health care, instead of being fixated on balancing the books.
“In our view, the responsible thing to do would be to make that investment and the last thing to do would be to shy from making that investment because it might jeopardize whether or not the province would be in the short-term, a balanced position,” he said.
WATCH: Federal tax changes could be ‘catastrophic’ for Nova Scotia doctors
Doctors Nova Scotia says shortages ‘critical’
Kevin Chapman, director of partnerships and finance for Doctors Nova Scotia, says physician shortages in the province are “critical” and trending in the wrong way.
“We’ve known that for the last couple years,” said Chapman.
He points to a recent survey by Corporate Research Associates (CRA) that found 50 per cent of the 372 doctors surveyed have experienced burnout symptoms.
Some of the data points to the stress of amalgamating nine separate health authorities into one.
One of the recommendations to come out of the survey is that physicians in the province and the government need to start talking about how to manage stress.
WATCH: Burnout a ’cause for concern’ for Nova Scotia doctors: survey
Doctor shortage not just a rural issue
Chapman says they’ve traditionally thought of doctor shortages as a rural issue but it’s not anymore.
“It’s a province-wide issue now,” he said.
It’s expected the doctor shortage may get worse since many physicians are getting set to retire.
“Physicians are not immune to the greying of the workforce the same as the rest of us are,” said Chapman. “We have a number of family physicians in Dartmouth for example, who are looking to retire so we need to figure out how do we stop this and then how do we make it better so everyone has access to a family physician.”
Chapman believes everyone in Nova Scotia should have access to a family doctor.
“The older you get, generally speaking, the more you use your physician. Same as if you have a chronic disease, diabetes or something like that. So, those are people who actually benefit the most from attachment to a family physician and a primary care provider.”
Chapman believes the government needs to get creative to get family physicians to practice in the province.
“We’re graduating more family medicine residents then ever before so we have to figure out how do we get them to work here and see the patients.”
Patients ‘opting out’ so family members can have access to doctor
Chapman says they have heard a number of stories from doctors across Nova Scotia about how family members are trying to get their loved ones a physician.
In one case, a family physician in the Bedford area was asked by a patient she had for years for help with her mother, who had recently lost her doctor.
“The patient literally asked the doctor ‘I’ll drop out of your practice, I’m young, I’m pretty healthy, I can go to walk-in clinics if you’ll take my mother as your patient’,” he said.
In another case, a family physician in a more rural part of the province told Doctors Nova Scotia about the kinds of things she faces on any given day.
One of her stories was about a patient who was palliative — and close to death — asking her that when she dies, can her daughter (who didn’t have a family doctor) take her spot and be a patient of the clinic.
“Unfortunately, we hear too frequently stories that I don’t think anybody really wants to hear,” said Chapman.