St. Martha’s Regional Hospital losing last obstetrician

St. Martha's Regional Hospital

ANTIGONISH: Despite planning for an obstetrics vacancy at the St. Martha’s Regional Hospital in Antigonish, the Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSHA) says they are prepared for it when it happens.

“NSHA is working with locum physicians to fill the current and expected vacancies and increasing recruitment efforts to replace these physicians,” Dr. Jeremy Hillyard, medical site lead at St. Martha’s, told The Reporter in a written statement. “We can confirm that we are planning for an obstetrics vacancy that is expected in August.”

Dr. Elissa Cohen, the only remaining obstetrician in Antigonish, has filed her notice to leave the NSHA. If her vacancy isn’t filled, the hospital – which births roughly 400 babies a year – will no longer be capable of offering the service.

In a statement provided to The Reporter, Randy Delorey, Antigonish MLA and Minister of Health and Wellness said recruitment efforts for obstetricians at St. Martha’s is ongoing, and while recruitment is continuing, NSHA will use locum coverage to maintain service levels.

“I understand that hearing a physician is leaving a community can create stress, but I want to reassure everyone that Nova Scotia Health Authority is working hard to fill vacancies across the province,” he said. “There are conversations with at least one obstetrician to fill one of the vacant positions for an extended period of time and I’m confident in NSHA’s ability to fill these positions and maintain obstetric services at St. Martha’s Regional Hospital.”

Traditionally, St. Martha’s is served by three obstetricians, as they provide service for mothers-to-be across a large geographical region from Antigonish to Canso to Chéticamp. Recently one of those obstetricians went on indefinite leave, while the other repaid their signing bonus and left last year citing workload and difficulties getting paid for work by the NSHA – leaving Cohen to foot the job solo.

Doctors Nova Scotia, the professional association for physicians in the province helps doctors like Cohen, by providing advice on contracts and service delivery to ensure services are equitable and sustainable for the physician and the community, helping physicians negotiate service deliverables with the NSHA, and advocate on behalf of physicians and help them make connections with decision makers who can help them resolve their issues.

“It’s impossible to expect a service that is supposed to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to operate with just one physician. Eventually physicians start to feel isolated and unsafe practicing that way,” Nancy MacCready-Williams, CEO of Doctors Nova Scotia said. “At the very minimum three physicians are needed to cover a service 24/7 and to ensure appropriate wait times for consultations and non-urgent care.”

In addition to their daily regular office appointments, they must work on-call for emergencies every other day to sustain the service – which doesn’t allow for any vacation or sick days.

MacCready-Williams said ideally, the province must get to a place where they’re able to keep the physicians currently practicing here and to recruit new ones, but that’s going to take some changes – such as offering competitive compensation, creating mentorship opportunities for physicians and reducing red tape.

“Right now, our province is hard pressed to compete with neighboring Atlantic provinces, let alone across the country,” she said. “Physicians are feeling burned out, unappreciated and disengaged from government and the Nova Scotia Health Authority. The government and the health authorities must help create a better working environment for physicians.”

There are about 200 physician vacancies across Nova Scotia, both specialists and family physicians, and more than half of practicing physicians are over the age of 50.

If the obstetrician services are lost at St. Martha’s pregnant mothers would either have to travel to the Aberdeen Hospital in New Glasgow or the Cape Breton Regional Hospital in Sydney to deliver their child.