Learning that your family doctor is retiring, moving or closing their practice can be difficult. It’s something that many Nova Scotians are grappling with as the province works to retain and recruit family physicians. More than 129,300 Nova Scotians (13% of the population) are on the waitlist for a family doctor.
Nova Scotia has an aging physician workforce, with 25% of our family doctors aged 60 and older. Most family doctors are working at full capacity, and many have taken on more patients over the years to try to ensure as many people as possible get the care they need.
No doctor wants to see any patient go without care. Remember that your doctor is a person, too – they get sick, have children, retire, move away – and these things all affect how many patients they can have in their care.
While losing your family doctor is unsettling, there are steps you can take to prepare for it and ensure that your health care stays on track. Here’s a checklist of six things to keep in mind.
1. Book a final appointment
If you can, book a final appointment with your doctor. Get your medications renewed for as long as your doctor recommends. Some prescriptions can be provided for up to a year while others require more frequent monitoring. Ask who will handle your future blood work results and how you will be notified if you need urgent care. If you have already had a referral to a specialist underway, that specialist should contact you directly to set up your appointment.
If your doctor has requested you get blood work, X-rays or another diagnostic test, get it done as soon as possible. Don’t put it off, as receiving the results and any medication changes may become complicated once your doctor is gone.
2. Put your name on the waitlist
Register on the Need a Family Doctor waitlist online or by calling 811. Once you are on the waitlist, you can register to receive virtual care through VirtualCareNS, which provides virtual care to Nova Scotians who don’t have a family doctor. Nova Scotia Health publishes a monthly report on the waitlist, including regional statistics.
3. See if you need a copy of your medical record
Contact your doctor’s office if you’d like a copy of your medical record – it’s not required but can be helpful for your next family doctor if you have complex health issues. Doctors are required to keep patient medical records for 10 years (for children, it’s 10 years beyond the time the child reaches age 19), even once their practice closes. When that period of time passes, the files are destroyed. If you can’t contact your doctor’s office, contact the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Nova Scotia to find out where your record is stored.
4. Self-refer for cancer screening
Don’t let cancer screening fall off your radar, regardless of your circumstances. Sexually active people over the age of 25 with a cervix should have Pap tests every three years. You can book one at a local Well Woman Clinic. People aged 50 to 74 should screen for colon cancer every two years. The Colon Cancer Prevention Program mails out the test kits. You can also book a mammogram to check for breast cancer; it’s recommended every two to three years for women aged 50 to 74 and for people in that age group who have been taking gender-affirming hormones like estrogen for more than five years. Mobile mammogram clinics are also available across the province.
5. Find health care in the community
Beyond cancer screening, you can also self-refer for other health care, including mental health services, addictions treatment programs and programs to quit smoking. Stay up to date with your immunizations, including the flu shot and COVID-19 vaccines.
There are also programs available for Nova Scotians who need continuing care at home in their community. This can include nursing care, home care, respite care, palliative care, home oxygen services and more.
6. Don’t delay getting medical help
There are walk-in and after-hours clinics available across Nova Scotia – check out this list for details. VirtualCareNS, which provides virtual care to Nova Scotians who don’t have a family doctor, is also available (remember you must be on the waitlist for a family doctor to qualify). In addition, there is now a primary care mobile health clinic that visits communities across Nova Scotia, providing appointments for folks without a family doctor. Select pharmacies in the province are also offering primary care clinics, providing treatment for common illnesses including strep throat, and medications for chronic diseases like diabetes, and cardiovascular and lung disease.
Remember: If you are experiencing a health crisis, or don’t have any other options for non-urgent medical care, don’t hesitate to visit your closest emergency department (ED). Be patient – EDs across Nova Scotia are under incredible strain right now, with doctors, nurses and other health-care staff doing the best they can. If you visit the ED for a non-urgent issue, be prepared to wait. Bring snacks and drinks (and toys for your kids), any medications you may need, a charging cord or power bank for your phone, and something to read.