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Newfoundland critics warn of doctor shortage amid P.E.I. recruitment campaign

Inter-provincial pitch included virtual reality goggles loaded with scenes from health-care facilities and virtual visit to local ice cream parlour


By Danielle Edwards

On a recent visit to St. John’s, N.L., Dr. Megan Miller brought along a special weapon.

The chief physician recruiter for Prince Edward Island was in the Newfoundland and Labrador capital to attract doctors to her province, and her pitch included virtual reality goggles loaded with scenes from health-care facilities in her province and a virtual visit to a local ice cream parlour.

“Getting people here to actually see P.E.I. who may be considering working here, was obviously very, very challenging,” she said in a recent interview. The goggles allowed her team to bring a bit of the Island with them as they presented their recruitment materials to physicians, residents and Memorial University of Newfoundland medical students.

It was the first in-person trip to St. John’s for P.E.I.’s year-old Physicians Recruiting Physicians initiative, but some in Newfoundland and Labrador are worried such efforts could exacerbate an ongoing doctor shortage in their province.

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Polling by Narrative Research for the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association in September found that nearly one in five of the province’s roughly 520,000 residents were without a family doctor.

In August the medical association had expressed concern that a physician recruitment pledge by the new Progressive Conservative government in Nova Scotia would undermine efforts to sell doctors on Newfoundland and Labrador. “Our ability to attract physicians to work in Newfoundland and Labrador is about to get a lot more challenging,” association president Dr. Susan MacDonald said at the time.

When contacted this week about the P.E.I. initiative, an association representative declined to comment, saying doctors are involved in negotiations with the province

Tony Wakeham, the Progressive Conservative member of the provincial legislature for Stephenville-Port au Port in western Newfoundland, sees P.E.I.’s recruitment campaign — bringing their search to a province already strapped for doctors — as an example of the “aggressive” approach other provinces are taking. He said his constituency is in dire need of physicians, with only four family physicians practising in Stephenville and nine vacancies in the area.

“We find ourselves at the worst case scenario, struggling to attract physicians and at the same time, other provinces are just coming here and trying to recruit what few doctors we have left,” Wakeham said during an interview this week.

“(Other) provinces are being aggressive, and so they should be,” he added. “They recognize they have a problem, and they’re going aggressively to try and fix it.”

Newfoundland and Labrador’s Health Department did not reply to a request for comment for this story.

P.E.I.’s Miller said the feedback on the experience with the goggles was positive, and the technology will allow the team to expand its recruiting efforts nationally and internationally. The province’s health minister, Ernie Hudson, expressed his excitement about the new technology in a recent interview. “Point blank, we are in competition with every other area, every other jurisdiction,” he said.

Dr. Monica Kidd, who practised medicine in Newfoundland until recently, said working in the province comes with challenges. She now works in Calgary after leaving the St. John’s area this last summer as her husband struggled to find work. While practising in St. John’s, she said she was up against a lack of resources and support, which was amplified by the pandemic.

“People with a lot of concurrent illnesses are competing for your attention in the clinic,” Kidd said, noting some patients have to wait several weeks for services including routine lab testing or X-rays.

“I think that takes a real emotional toll on physicians. You start to wonder if you’re giving the best care that you can,” she said.

She’s currently working on a research study looking at graduates of Memorial University of Newfoundland’s medical program and their experiences with recruitment. Though the study is not complete, Kidd said respondents say they often aren’t given the opportunity to work in the province.

“It is so common for people to say, ‘No recruiter approached me when I was in medical school or residency to work in Newfoundland,”’ she said. “Eighty per cent of people in their training wanted to stay in Newfoundland afterwards and work, and only 50 per cent were (staying in the province.) So why that big gap? That big gap is because there weren’t jobs for them, or somebody else got them first.”

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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