MLA hopeful changes coming for program attracting doctors, nurses to rural Nova Scotia

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WATCH: An Eastern Shore MLA is hopeful a federal incentive program will change so it includes his constituency, which has seen emergency department closures due to doctor shortages. Alexa MacLean has more – Jan 14, 2021

It may have taken three years to get a response but Eastern Shore MLA Kevin Murphy is hoping Ottawa makes changes to a program that encourages nurses and doctors to work in rural areas.

“The federal department has been undergoing a review based on this request. That review turned out to be much larger and broader than our initial, kind of, micro-perspective of the program,” Murphy said.

The program in question is called Doctors and Nurses Student Loan Forgiveness.

Read more: Emergency department closures continue to increase for Eastern Shore hospitals

In a nutshell, it offers thousands of dollars in tuition relief to health-care practitioners who commit to working in rural Canada.

The program was launched in 2013 and first brought to Murphy’s attention when a nurse practitioner expressed concern over not qualifying for the program even though she was applying for a Sheet Harbour position.

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Murphy says he was surprised to find out that Sheet Harbour and other Eastern Shore communities don’t meet the necessary requirements for the program because they aren’t considered rural.

This is because these communities fall under the Halifax Regional Municipality, which the federal program considers a metropolitan area.

“We discovered that not only does it affect recruiting health-care practitioners but, in fact, this program under the federal department of labour, was pretty large,” Murphy added.

Many Eastern Shore communities don’t qualify for the federal tuition relief program aimed at attracting nurses and doctors to rural areas. Alexa MacLean/Global Halifax

He says the program is actually available as a recruitment tool to bring a wide range of professionals to rural communities, prompting him to send a letter to Eastern Shore-area MPs Sean Fraser and Darrell Samson in 2018.

The letter asked them to alert Ottawa to the challenges some rural communities within HRM face when it comes to accessing federal government incentive programs.

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“Ultimately, the change that we’re looking for is very simple. It’s recognition that HRM is a very large municipal piece of geography. And the urban centre of HRM is pretty concentrated within the metro area,” Murphy said.

Murphy said the letter was also sent to all MLAs representing rural areas within the Halifax Regional Municipality in the hopes that they would also advocate to have the program qualification requirements changed, “to ensure that the federal labour department clearly understood the predicament that we’re in and the importance of making that change on our behalf.”

The federal employment department says those changes are still being considered.

“The review is still in progress so we are unable to share further details at this time,” a representative with the media relations office wrote in an email.

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Emergency department closures for three Central Zone hospitals located in the Eastern Shore/Musquodoboit Valley area have been steadily increasing throughout the past year.

Click to play video 'Code Zero: Rising number of Rural Emergency Room Closures' Code Zero: Rising number of Rural Emergency Room Closures
Code Zero: Rising number of Rural Emergency Room Closures – Dec 16, 2019

This rise in closures is due to ongoing nurse and physician shortages.

In December 2020, the emergency departments at Twin Oaks Memorial, Eastern Shore Memorial and Musquodoboit Valley Memorial were closed 40 times.

Dr. Robyn MacQuarrie, the president of Doctors Nova Scotia and a rural physician, says rural emergency department closures are the result of complex challenges with recruitment and retention.

“Obviously, finances play a role in it but there are some people who prefer to work in a site that maybe isn’t seeing the highest acuity and there are some people that really want to work in super high acuity,” MacQuarrie said.

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Read more: N.S. health minister hopes new doctors’ agreement will combat growing ER closures

The hourly rate for emergency shift coverage does greatly vary depending on which sites are being covered.

As of April 2020, coverage at regional/tertiary level sites pays $232.51 per hour, while coverage at Level 4 sites pays $89.39 an hour.

ED hourly rates Master Agreement. Source: Doctors Nova Scotia

MacQuarrie says that while compensation rates are part of the retention picture, there are many more factors involved in attracting health-care professionals to rural communities.

That is why she encourages rural community residents to advocate for themselves when it comes to addressing health system challenges.

“Reach out to the local community sites and say, what can we do to make the experience better? There’s a lot of things that can be done with a little pressure applied,” she said.