On March 2, the Town of Port Hawkesbury's health care recruitment committee hosted a group of doctors considering locating in the Strait area.

Things are starting to fall in place for local efforts to attract and retain more physicians and other health care professionals to the Strait area.

On March 2, a group of potential physicians visited Port Hawkesbury. Each doctor has already immigrated to Canada and has families with children, but none have found a place to practice medicine.

Following March’s regular town council meeting the following day, town councillor Trevor Boudreau, who is also the chair of the town’s health care recruitment committee, said there was interest from the physicians, noting he has “high hopes” one of them will choose Port Hawkesbury.

The group toured schools in the town, went to the Strait Area Yacht Club, and looked at recreation and cultural facilities. Even if none of the doctors in that cohort choose the community, Boudreau said the town learned a significant amount from this recruiting experience. After this initial visit, they will now be able to plan an improved experience for the next group of doctors.

Mayor Brenda Chisholm-Beaton said having one new doctor practice in the town would be beneficial to the entire region, noting that many of the visitors “fell in love with our waterfront.”

Feedback from the March 2 visit included a comment from one physician with a young family that “this place has everything we need and want.”

On March 9, the Town of Port Hawkesbury and the Municipality of the County of Richmond formally entered a partnership to attract health care professionals to the region.

Town and county officials are engaging with representatives from the Strait-Richmond Hospital, the Dr. Kingston Memorial Community Health Centre, St. Anne Community and Nursing Care Centre, the Strait Area Chamber of Commerce, the Cape Breton Partnership, and other partners.

The group has formed Cape Breton South Recruiting for Health that is using a regional approach focused on building on the strengths of local communities and providing a more collaborative environment.

The group is working with the Nova Scotia Health Authority to arrange additional physician visits to all three participating medical facilities in the region.

Also co-chair of Cape Breton South Recruiting for Health, Boudreau said the group has benefitted from the “collective expertise and experiences” of its members, but their real strength is going to come from the feedback of residents to build a stronger physician recruitment case.

Dorothy Barnard represented Cape Breton South Recruiting for Health at Richmond Municipal Council’s committee-of-the-whole meeting on March 9 in Arichat and was able to get a $15,000 funding commitment to market the area, provide consultation, host site visits, and attend conferences, such as an upcoming event in Ottawa for rural physicians.

Because of the current shortage of doctors and nurses and regular emergency room closures, the group wants to coordinate all recruitment efforts regionally and aggressively pursue candidates.

Pointing out that what impacts Port Hawkesbury, impacts Richmond County within the health care system, Barnard said all physician offices and health care facilities in the Strait area are suffering as a result of physician and nurse shortages; many people without doctors, and there are constant emergency room closures.

Barnard said there is an economic effect to losing health care professionals because it deters those wanting to move to the region and the community loses the skills they provide.

As a result, the top priority of the group is physician recruitment, Barnard said, noting it will take time to fill positions, but the need is immediate and increasing. She pointed out that having physicians also makes it easier to attract nurses and others to the area.

Then on March 11, the province announced almost $30,000 to assist physician recruitment and retention efforts in the Strait area.

The government provided $10,000 to the Town of Port Hawkesbury to support a new program that aims to connect community volunteers with new physicians. Chisolm-Beaton said the funding will empower the community with the tools to demonstrate the quality of life in the town. The mayor said the investment will allow the town to engage with health care professionals in meaningful ways.

The Eastern Memorial Hospital Foundation was approved for $10,000 to support the creation of a new team to develop a welcome and promotion plan for the community. The group will consult and support new physicians and build an on-line portal for newcomers to find cultural events and activities in the area. John Bent, chair of the Eastern Memorial Hospital Foundation said the funding will highlight what the community has to offer and tailor those assets to prospective physicians and their families.

The Guysborough Memorial Hospital Foundation also received a $9,400 grant to help form a Welcome Home committee to produce a web-based video guide to introduce new doctors and their families to the community.

While these are major achievements in the long and busy road to finding and keeping doctors and nurses in the area, there remains a lot of work ahead, and not much time to do it.

As Barnard noted to council, the L’Ardoise-based clinic is losing both doctors at the end of June, leaving many more people without doctors in a region where thousands are already without.

And the stresses on the system remain, such as regular emergency room closures at the Guysborough, Arichat and Evanston facilities, due to staffing shortages.

While some health care professionals have expressed genuine interest in locating here, no contracts have yet been signed and there are more visits to host, more expos to attend, and more work to do selling the region.

It is encouraging that these noble efforts received tangible assistance recently, and with groups, residents and elected bodies working together and aggressively, there are reasons to believe these gaps can be filled and soon.