05/09/2012 09:20 EDT | Updated 07/09/2012 05:12 EDT

Nova Scotia will need 187 doctors in next decade, new report says

HALIFAX - Nova Scotia will need close to 200 more doctors over the next decade to meet the demands of its aging population, says a new report released Wednesday.

The report by Social Sector Metrics Inc. and Health Intelligence Inc. said growing rates of chronic disease in the elderly would mean the province would need 187 more doctors over the next 10 years to cover growing health needs and retirements in the physician workforce.

It said that number could fluctuate depending upon factors such as population shifts and disease rates, though it adds that the province's population is expected to be six per cent older on average by 2021 than it is now.

More than 900 doctors, or 31 per cent of the current workforce, is expected to retire by 2021, the report added.

The consultants said the province needs a better mix of family doctors and specialists to ensure better access to primary care. It recommends increasing the percentage of family and primary care physicians from the current 42 per cent to 49 per cent by 2021.

Health Minister Maureen MacDonald said the report has given the province with an overview of its physician needs.

"It will provide us with a framework so that we can train, recruit and retain the right mix of doctors for our province," said MacDonald.

She said the province is looking at strengthening doctor recruitment efforts and at providing additional incentives to ensure physicians are working where they are needed most, particularly in rural areas.

MacDonald said this year, four more collaborative primary care teams will be set up in rural communities and more support will be given to the 16 teams already in place.

She said her department would also work with Dalhousie University's Medical School to increase the number of family doctors it trains, and the government would develop a program to help fill vacant shifts in emergency rooms.

Preston Smith, the senior associate dean at Dalhousie's Faculty of Medicine, said the report would better help the school "better link" physician supply with the population's need.

He said several efforts are already underway aimed at encouraging students to work in rural settings, including a one-week mandatory placement for first-year students and a pilot project that sees third-year students spend all of their time in a town or a small city.

"All trainees, whether eventually an urban specialist or a rural family doctor, will experience the full spectrum of the province's health care system both inside and outside large hospital networks," said Smith.

Progressive Conservative health critic Chris d'Entremont, a former health minister in the previous government, said he saw nothing new in the report, calling it a "plan to make a plan."

"I've seen nothing in this that I didn't know as minister," he said.

D'Entremont said the government should increase its funding for Dalhousie's Medical School so it could train the doctors that are needed.

Liberal health critic Leo Glavine said the province should immediately target doctors from Nova Scotia who have moved to practise elsewhere in order to fill the gap in rural medical services.

He said the report does provide direction on future recruitment.

"In the long term, we do need the clerkships which will get students at Dalhousie out into rural Nova Scotia," said Glavine.

The Health Department said the report took nine months to complete and cost the province $248,000.