Doctors in Nova Scotia are facing extreme burnout amid a workforce shortage that could worsen with a looming wave of retirements, says the former head of the association that represents doctors in the province.

Dr. Leisha Hawker, former director of Doctors Nova Scotia, told a legislative committee Tuesday that stress among emergency and family physicians is at an all-time high as they work in a system with more than 200 open physician positions to provide care.

“There are many physicians who are being asked to take on more patients on a daily basis because they are already struggling to provide timely access to care to their current patient base,” Hawker said in an interview following the committee meeting.

Hawker told the committee that about a quarter of family physicians in the province are 60 and older and may be considering retirement. And as the province’s doctors age, so do their patients, increasing the complexity of care, according to Hawker.

“Since I started practicing about 10 years ago, the burden on primary care physicians and emergency physicians has really increased dramatically,” Hawker said in an interview.

She said as of March 4, there were 213 job postings for physicians in Nova Scotia, 129 of which were in family medicine.

Meanwhile, as of March 1, about 16 per cent of Nova Scotia residents – 156,000 people – were on the province’s waiting list for primary care.

Recent changes to Nova Scotia’s physician collective bargaining agreement and payment model make Hawker “cautiously optimistic” that things will improve despite the workforce shortage, she said.

A spokesperson for the provincial Office of Healthcare Recruitment said the province added a net 96 new doctors to the healthcare system between April 1, 2023 and January 31, 2024. Of these 96 doctors, 13 work in family medicine.

Doctors Nova Scotia said there are 1,343 family physicians practicing in Nova Scotia – including doctors who do not have a practice or patient list and those who work in emergency medicine, addiction medicine, palliative care and as hospitalists.

Janet Hazelton, president of the Nova Scotia Nurses’ Union, told the committee Tuesday that burnout and stress among nurses is at an all-time high in the 22 years she has led the union. And like doctors who are caring for more complex cases as the population ages, nurses are caring for more people with serious needs.

“The workload is higher and we have fewer nurses. When you add it all up, it’s not a good scene,” she said in an interview.

Hazelton said there are about 1,500 open nursing positions across Nova Scotia’s health system.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 19, 2024.

For more Nova Scotia news, visit our dedicated provincial page.

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