Nova Scotia is in a battle to recruit and retain health-care workers needed to sustain a system that has been under immense pressure over the past two years due to COVID-19.
The daunting truth? The province needs to hire 100 doctors per year over the next 10 years, according to the province’s health-care recruitment office.
Meanwhile, Nova Scotia Health is short nearly 2,000 nurses in the province. The region’s children’s hospital — IWK Health Centre — has 80 vacancies currently, but that number is only expected to grow.
While the worst of the pandemic may be behind us, the pressures on the health-care system are not, said Doctors Nova Scotia President Dr. Leisha Hawker.
“As COVID’s starting to lift, we see a huge backlog. So it’s a big, steep, uphill climb and we know it’s not going to be over any time soon,” Hawker told Global News.
Nearly 95,000 Nova Scotians are on the waitlist for a family physician — a record high for the province.
“About a quarter of physicians in the province are 60 years and up, so not only do we have to recruit for those 95,000 that are on the list, we also have to do a lot of succession planning as well,” said Hawker.
It’s proving to be a challenge for those on the frontlines, who are exhausted by the pandemic and continuously working short-staffed.
“It’s hard — it hurts your heart to say no because you also have to respect your current patients and the wait times they have to be able to get a visit with you,” Hawker said.
Since the Office of Healthcare Professionals Recruitment was formed last September in Nova Scotia by the PC government, 120 physicians have come to the province, including 26 from outside Canada.
Dr. Kevin Orrell, the office’s deputy minister and CEO, said his role has a “lot of moving parts.”
“It is perhaps bigger than I imagined, but it was not a surprise that it was going to be a major effort,” he said.
As part of the work, Orrell said the province is trying to identify the needs of each community. The Department of Health is working on creating a Physician Workforce Resource Plan, which will provide an updated picture.
“The numbers vary according to the population within those communities, the age of the people in the communities and the chronic diseases that they experience,” he said.
“So some communities have a much higher rate of chronic illness and they of course would require more physicians to care for those types of patients. And then a younger population that would only need to see a doctor occasionally.”
He added that recruitment efforts have taken a “collaborative” approach, which means supporting health-care workers’ families who are accompanying them to the province.
Nurse vacancy rate at 30-year high
Premier Tim Houston announced in October 2021 that every Nova Scotia-trained nurse would be getting a job offer. This year, more than 350 nurses have said “yes.”
But even if Nova Scotia hired every locally-trained nursing graduate, it wouldn’t be enough to solve the shortage.
“It’s incredibly challenging,” said Dr. Kirk Magee, the emergency medicine chief for Nova Scotia Health’s Central Zone.
“We have to make sure that whoever we get, we hang on to. That’s really important. But it also suggests that we have to do things fundamentally in a different way.
“We have to look at how the system functions as a whole. And we can’t just ask people to work harder.”
The nurses’ union doesn’t have numbers of employees who have left the system, but estimates vacancy rates are at a 30-year high.
“They’re leaving because they’re not getting time off, they’re leaving because they’re being deployed to hospitals or units that they didn’t apply for, they’re leaving because they’ve applied for jobs in another place,” explained Janet Hazelton, president of the Nova Scotia Nurses’ Union.
For example, while the IWK Health Centre has a younger workforce, it’s expected their 80 nursing vacancies will grow in size.
“We’ve got teams who are exhausted and still dealing with high levels,” said Steve Ashton, IWK vice-president of people and organization development.
“I think some of those individuals are looking for a change now … It still creates a recruitment challenge.”
Ashton said the hospital cannot overwhelm its staff anymore and needs to be cognizant of time off to recharge.
The IWK is also trying to do more with less, in part with technology and streamlining paperwork.
But Ashton knows it’s a delicate balance when it comes to keeping health-care workers.
“We’re going to have a long road ahead of us and it’s going to be a marathon.”