Opposition critics fired back Thursday after Premier Stephen McNeil said previous Nova Scotia governments did “zero” to address doctor shortages.
McNeil defended his government’s record when asked why doctor shortages appear to be growing, after a Halifax emergency room physician said the number of visits to his ER had doubled over the last five years.
Dr. Kirk Magee, interim chief of emergency medicine for the heath authority’s central zone, said on Thursday that the number of patients showing up at the Halifax Infirmary emergency room without a family doctor has gone from seven per cent to 15 per cent.
He said that amounts to 25 to 30 people each day.
“When you look at it over time, we’ve been seeing more and more patients that come into (emergency) without family physicians,” he said. “It tells me that what we’re hearing in the news about lack of access to family physicians is probably correct.”
Magee said staff at the emergency department will never turn a patient away, but added that for patients with ongoing medical needs and chronic conditions, the care from emergency room physicians isn’t enough.
“Those patients don’t get care that is as good as what it could be,” he said. “What do those patients do? I don’t know but it’s definitely a hole in the system right now.”
Following a cabinet meeting, the premier told reporters that doctor shortages are a national problem that his government has acknowledged, although he admitted there is more work to do.
“Again I will argue successive governments before ours believed this issue was going to go away and did zero to address it,” said McNeil.
The Progressive Conservatives held power between 1999 and 2009, while the NDP was in office from 2009 until the Liberals won the 2013 election.
McNeil said his government is continuing efforts to recruit and retain doctors while it shifts the system to utilize more collaborative care teams.
“We are working with our primary care teams to deal with the challenge. We have not run away from it … we actually put money in the budget.”
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Progressive Conservative health critic Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin said she believes health professionals and the public would say that health care was better 10 years ago – and she said McNeil needs to be accountable.
“I don’t think the people of Nova Scotia are interested in a scorecard of what different political parties have done in the past. They are interested in what’s going on right now with our health care system.”
NDP Leader Gary Burrill was blunt in dismissing the premier’s apportioning of the blame.
“I think it is a load of disingenuous manure,” said Burrill. “It is a ridiculous deflection of responsibility, to rather than take account of their own failures to try to point this to governments that have come before.”
Burrill added that blaming others this far into the government’s mandate is “weak, ineffectual, and incompetent.”
Earlier this month, provincial health officials said 42,000 Nova Scotians are actively seeking a family physician, although federal statistics, which include people who aren’t looking, place that number at closer to 100,000.
That’s mainly due to 60 or more doctor vacancies caused by retirements and other issues.
McNeil has said governments, including his own, have been slow to implement collaborative practices, where health care teams that include physicians and nurse practitioners serve as the patient’s entry point to the health system.
About 50 of more than 70 planned collaborative practice teams are currently in various stages of development.