Sunday, July 3, 2022

Eastern Shore eligible for new doctor incentive program

Payments in place, but announcement mix-up raises eyebrows in Sheet Harbour

  • March 16 2022
  • By Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    

SHEET HARBOUR – Despite a communications foul-up on their eligibility, Eastern Shore communities stand to gain new doctors under the province’s Primary Care Physician Incentive Program announced last week, the area’s MLA Kent Smith has told The Journal.

“This is fantastic news,” he said, adding that one out-of-province doctor has already expressed interest in relocating. “These incentives will help recruit doctors to Eastern Shore and other areas of the province in need.”

The Come Home to Nova Scotia campaign, unveiled on March 7, provides a qualifying doctor with up to $125,000 in incentives to establish a family practice in a rural area — not Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) — where the shortage of physicians and other primary healthcare professionals is a perennial and worsening problem.

According to the announcement, doctors can earn $25,000 when they sign the agreement, along with $20,000 per year for the next five years. Payments will be made at the end of each year, after key targets are met. The Specialist Physician Incentive Program offers the same incentives to specialists who establish a practice outside the Central Zone, while the province also has educational incentives for physicians who stay in the province after graduation.

The announcement was almost overshadowed by a communications gaff in the original press release posted to the provincial government’s website, which left the impression that the incentives program would not be available to rural parts of the Eastern Shore, technically considered part of the Central Zone (HRM), including Sheet Harbour.

The confusion prompted that community’s Chamber of Commerce President Tom McInnis, a retired senator, to send an email to Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston on March 8, the day after the announcement.

“Congratulations on your announcement to incentivize doctor recruitment to rural Nova Scotia with the exception of Sheet Harbour,” he wrote. “Why? Never mind that we, in Sheet Harbour, are considerably further away from metro Halifax-Dartmouth than Truro, Kentville or Bridgewater, we happen to be part of HRM or the so-called Central Zone, which was exempted from the new funding possibility for medical recruits to rural Nova Scotia.”

He added: “Premier, if you are able to find a more rural area in Nova Scotia than Sheet Harbour, good luck. I and a group of other residents struggle to recruit medical staff and, with respect, I don’t believe we should be placed at a disadvantage by our very own provincial government. We thought that the DOH [Department of Health] was finally educated on this issue… This oversight must be corrected at the earliest possible opportunity.”

Within minutes after sending the email, McInnis received a reply from Smith, who wrote: “Tom, [the program] includes Sheet Harbour, Middle and Musquodoboit Valley.”

Responding to The Journal’s subsequent request for a comment, McInnis wrote: “I have to take them at their word that this was always intended to include our area… Attracting a doctor or nurse to this area is challenging because of the demand across the province. Therefore this $ incentive puts our area on a somewhat equal footing.”

He added: “The successful communities will be those who are able to demonstrate why their area is best suited to raise a family. With our state-of-the-art P-12 school, new $10-million Lifestyle Centre, medical facility with hospital, adequate offices, experienced support staff, drug store across the street, and all requisite retail services, boating, kayaking, Bay of Islands, fishing, and hunting, we have a great case to put.”

In an interview with The Journal on March 10, Smith addressed the mix-up directly: “Yeah, how do I say this diplomatically? It was always the intention not to include central, but to include those hospitals in eastern rural and Hants. That just didn’t make its way into the original press release for whatever reason.”

He added, jokingly: “Hey, the Eastern Shore has been overlooked forever.”

PC Caucus spokesperson Jordan Croucher confirmed that while the original press release contained an “unintended oversight,” the inclusion of rural and eastern HRM in the program was “always part of the policy right from the beginning.”

Added Marla MacInnis, spokesperson for the Department of Health and Wellness, in an email: “We’ve designed these new incentive programs in a way that helps us address the unique needs of Nova Scotia’s healthcare system. Among them is a need for family doctors and specialists in rural communities across the province — including those along the Eastern Shore and in the Hants corridor. Sheet Harbour has always been on that list.”

In October, The Journal reported that emergency room closure rates at Eastern Shore Memorial Hospital in Sheet Harbour had more than doubled to nearly 50 per cent over the previous year. Nova Scotia Health Authority spokesperson Amy Donnelly confirmed that the hospital’s acute care facilities had been closed 47 per cent of the time in 2019-20. She also noted that the institution was “struggling with recruitment, particularly physicians.”

At the time, McInnis said one way to address the problem was to change parts of the healthcare system along with the civic designation of Sheet Harbour. “The problem is that if you are a new doctor coming out of Dal Medical School or anyplace, and you went to work in Sheet Harbour, it would be no different than if you went to work in downtown Halifax,” he said. “If you went to Guysborough or Antigonish or New Glasgow, you would get $40,000 of your tuition costs paid off right away. But that [incentive program] is for ‘rural’ areas. It doesn’t apply to a heavily populated area like HRM, into which Sheet Harbour has been lumped.”

In a new press release — issued on March 9 — designed to clear up the confusion caused by the original announcement earlier in the week, Smith said, “Our government is doing everything we can to attract and retain doctors and increase access to healthcare for Nova Scotians.”

Added Larry Harrison, MLA for Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley, in the same release: “Our Premier is so serious about bringing doctors home, he’ll be making some of the calls himself. This campaign and the new incentives will bring more doctors to our communities and help Nova Scotians get the healthcare they deserve.”

Meanwhile, the original press release on the announcement, without these clarifications, remains posted to the province’s communications website.