Newfoundland and Labrador grappling with severe doctor shortage

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Retiree Bernie Leroux is just one of thousands of Newfoundland seniors without a family doctor.Paul Tizzard/The Globe and Mail

Bernie Leroux is mid-sentence when pain flashes across his face and his smile turns into a grimace. He stops talking, gets up out of his armchair and leaves the living room.

Mr. Leroux, 67, is passing another kidney stone, an agonizing process he’s doing without medical help. He’s like many Newfoundlanders in small communities throughout his province – he doesn’t have a family doctor, and unless it’s a health emergency, he avoids the long waits at his local hospital.

“I don’t want to go into the emergency room for eight or 10 hours. It’s just misery,” he said, after easing back down in his chair.

A musician and retired boilermaker with a long sleeve of tattoos showing portraits of his family tree, Mr. Leroux left Alberta to return home about four years ago. He settled in Stephenville, N.L., with his wife, but says gaps in Newfoundland and Labrador’s heath care system make him sometimes wonder why he moved back.

He has high-blood pressure, a racing heartbeat, inflammation in his lungs and he needs tests to examine the blood in his urine, he said. But until he can get an appointment to see a nurse practitioner, something that can take weeks, he can’t get a referral for a specialist who can help him.

So Mr. Leroux stays home, and hopes the pain will pass.

There are plenty of others like him in a province with the oldest population in Canada. Roughly 98,000 people in Newfoundland and Labrador don’t have a family doctor, according to the province’s medical association – and the shortage is only getting worse.

Newfoundland’s Health Minister John Haggie declines to call it a crisis. But Premier Andrew Furey, who like Mr. Haggie is also a doctor, conceded the province’s health system is “broken,” and last month introduced a series of major reforms including the creation of community-based collaborative health teams, and walk-in clinics for people without a family doctor.

The province is also creating a new recruitment and retention office, with financial incentives to entice health care professionals, including international graduates, to come and work in Newfoundland.

In communities across Newfoundland and Labrador, where they’ve been waiting years for things to improve, there’s skepticism the new measures will ease the pressure on an overburdened system.

In Stephenville, a former U.S. air force base in western Newfoundland, the shortage of doctors is felt deeply by its residents. After waiting 16 months for a triple bypass heart surgery, Aubrey Budgell (right) is now on the path to recovery.Paul Tizzard/The Globe and Mail

In Stephenville, a former U.S. air force base on the rocky shores of Bay St. George in western Newfoundland, the departure of every doctor is felt deeply. At the local Sir Thomas Roddick Hospital, where chronic staff shortages have caused services to be cut back for years, the emergency room is often full of patients with non-urgent problems.

Others here feel stuck in limbo by a system straining under demand. Down the street from Mr. Leroux, neighbour Aubrey Budgell is recovering from heart surgery. Mr. Budgell waited 16 months for the procedure, after an angiogram in June, 2020, revealed five blockages in the arteries around his heart.

“Your life is put on hold, because I was too afraid to get my heart rate up. It just slowed my whole life down,” said Mr. Budgell, 73, who had to drive eight hours across the province to see a heart surgeon, and says he was still waiting for post-surgery care at home.

“I was told the blockages were so severe they should be done shortly. But I kept asking when, and they kept saying, ‘It’ll be done next week, in two weeks, or three weeks.’ And I kept waiting.”

In rural Atlantic Canada, campaigns to recruit medical workers to ease bottlenecks like these are pitting province against province, and community against community. New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island have all recently made moves to encourage more doctors to work in their provinces – making the competition for physicians that much more fierce around the region.

Mayor Tom Rose and his council have brought in an incentive program to recruit doctors, offering free cars, golf memberships, and property tax breaks, among other things.Paul Tizzard/The Globe and Mail

Last year, the Town of Stephenville started paying the property taxes, licence fees, car leases and even gym and golf course memberships of doctors and nurses who live in the community.

“We’re an aging population, like many places in Newfoundland and Labrador. About 20 per cent of the people in our community don’t have a doctor,” explained Tom Rose, the town’s mayor. “We have a very strained health care system here, and this is just one way to show those people we appreciate the work they’re doing.”

He estimates the retention program will cost the municipality about $176,000 this fiscal year, and says it’s well worth it if lures more medical specialists to the town of about 6,600.

Mr. Leroux, who grew up near Deer Lake, N.L., says he’s watched his province’s health care system deteriorate over the years. Despite having a modern, 40-bed hospital, expectant mothers are sent to other towns to deliver their babies. Procedures are increasingly being centralized, forcing Newfoundlanders to drive further and further, he said.

“My father had brain surgery in Corner Brook in the 1950s. Now they can’t even take your tonsils out there,” he said.

Everyone in Stephenville seems to have stories like this. One friend waited two years for a new hip, he said. Another fishing buddy had a heart attack and died in the ambulance on his way to hospital – a three-hour drive because closer hospitals didn’t have a cardiologist available.

Mr. Leroux’s girlfriend, Marion Furey, meanwhile, is fortunate to have a family doctor, but he’s in his 80s, and with failing health, is seeing fewer and fewer patients, she said.

Mr. Leroux is on a wait list for a family doctor, but doubts he will actually get one given the high demand and short supply of doctors in his community.Paul Tizzard/The Globe and Mail

“You better pray you don’t get sick,” she said.

Mr. Leroux is on a wait list for a family doctor, but doubts he’ll ever actually get one. He said a woman who works at his local health authority told him he’d be waiting a long time before a physician could take him on as a patient.

“She said there’s already 6,000 people on the list ahead of me, and said ‘Good luck to you,’” he said.

So Mr. Leroux just stays home, sitting and waiting and worrying, hoping he can remain healthy enough to avoid the hospital. He says hospital employees are doing the best they can, but with so many staffing shortages, their hands are tied.

“Newfoundlanders are tough,” he said. “We have to be.”

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