It’s a fact that Nova Scotia’s health-care system is at a critical juncture. More than 100,000 Nova Scotians are without a family doctor, and more than 43,000 people are stuck on a wait list to be welcomed into a family practice. The fact is, many Nova Scotians cannot access primary care when they need it.
While our province is struggling to retain the doctors it has and recruit new, much-needed doctors to communities, much of the conversation has been focusing on the value of alternate primary care providers.
Nurses, nurse practitioners, pharmacists and physician assistants have all shone a light on how their professions can help with Nova Scotia’s primary health-care crisis.
Each does bring a skillset that can benefit Nova Scotians. But none of them can replace the family physician.
Family doctors are the first stop for Nova Scotians who need help with an illness, injury or chronic condition, or need health and wellness advice. Improving access to family doctors must be a priority for the province.
With that in mind, it’s important to understand the crucial roles that family doctors play in our communities.
Comprehensive primary health care
Nova Scotia has an aging population, and many people are living with chronic diseases and multiple conditions. Family physicians are specially trained and uniquely skilled at providing comprehensive care for patients with complex needs.
If a person is hospitalized, their family doctor can follow their treatment closely and manage any gaps in protocol. They know their patient best and have a stronger bond than even the best-intentioned health-care providers on a rotating shift.
Family doctors don’t just work in medical clinics. As skilled multitaskers, they provide a range of health-care services outside of their offices.
In towns across Nova Scotia, you’ll find family doctors caring for seniors in nursing homes, treating patients in hospitals and triaging critically injured people in emergency departments.
In addition to your surgeon, you’ll find family doctors assisting in the operating room. Not only do family doctors care for expectant moms, they also help deliver their babies. Unless a mom-to-be is having a complicated birth, the physician supporting their care at many regional hospitals is a family doctor.
No matter who they are treating, family doctors have the training and experience to respond to a person’s evolving needs, adapting quickly to changing circumstances and mobilizing the right resources to help.
No wonder it takes years of education and training to become a family doctor. That starts with an undergraduate degree followed by four years of medical school—the first two years in the classroom and the final two years in the hospital. Following that is two to seven years of residency or specialization.
Their training doesn’t end there. To stay on top of new treatments and techniques, all doctors must complete specialized education sessions every year in order to keep their licence to practise medicine.
The personal touch
When a person consults with any health-care provider, the first question they hear is, “Do you have a family doctor?” That’s because having a family doctor is the gold standard of care.
People with a family doctor have someone quarterbacking their health care, particularly if they are struggling with a chronic illness. Their family doctor understands their unique medical history, knows what works, what doesn’t and what’s normal for them, and when to sound the alarm.
Building healthy communities
Family doctors also help build healthy communities. They guide their patients through their network of health practitioners, ensuring their patients get the treatment they need.
They provide vital health-care services to the broader community. In rural settings, family doctors provide after-hours medical care. Knowing the medical histories of their patients they treat means they can give efficient treatment and solid advice, preventing people from seeking care at emergency departments when it’s not needed.
In addition, family doctors advocate on their patients’ behalf and work with the government to ensure that Nova Scotians receive the best care possible.
Nova Scotia is promoting collaborative health-care teams as a solution to our doctor shortage. This is a new practice model where groups of health-care providers (including family doctors, nurse practitioners, family practice nurses and other professionals) care for patients as a team.
Collaborative health-care teams can help more Nova Scotians get the care they need. But in order to succeed, the current payment system for family doctors needs to change, so that family doctors are paid for spending the time they need with their patients.
Each health-care provider has a unique role to play in the health-care system and must be supported to work together to deliver the best possible health care to Nova Scotians.
What can you do?
Every Nova Scotian should be able to access a health-care team that includes a family physician. The Nova Scotia Health Authority connects doctors to patients who are searching for a family physician and keeps a current wait list of physicians who are accepting new patients. If you are without a family doctor, be sure to call 811 to your name on this list.
It’s a priority for us to continue advocating the provincial government to improve access to primary health care for all Nova Scotians.