12/13/2017 10:41 EST | Updated 12/16/2017 09:23 EST

N.S. recruiting doctors, but vacancies persist: 'We will take as many as we can'

HALIFAX — Nova Scotia health officials say they are stepping up efforts to address doctor shortages, touting the province's quality of life and new healthcare approach to prospective physicians, but admit vacancies persist.

A legislature committee heard Wednesday that 42,000 Nova Scotians are actively seeking a family physician, although federal statistics place that number at closer to 100,000 — including people who simply aren't looking for a doctor.

The Nova Scotia Health Authority has recruited 92 doctors since April 1, but there are still 60 or more vacancies due to physician retirements and other issues.

Dr. Lynne Harrigan, the authority's vice-president of medicine, told the public accounts committee the recruitment goal for this year is 100 doctors — 50 family doctors and 50 specialists. But despite efforts, she said, many vacancies will remain.

"This number will remain between 55 and 60 for some time as more people retire and we bring more people in," said Harrigan. "We are trying to gain traction, but 60, 70 — we will take as many doctors as we can."

Harrigan said the health authority is working to recruit doctors by selling them on the province's quality of life and attempts to transform the health system through such things as collaborative medical practices.

Progressive Conservative committee member Tim Houston expressed doubts the current pace of recruitment would be able to fix the shortage anytime soon.

"I don't know that they have a full grasp on the upcoming need over the next two years, five years," said Houston. "I just don't think that they fully understand how dire things are and if they don't understand that then it's hard to expect them to really ramp up to meet it."

Harrigan said new physicians working in the province include 26 family doctors and 66 specialists. There are currently 44 offers to doctors who are expected to come within the year — and 11 of those are to family doctors.

Following the hearing, deputy health minister Denise Perret couldn't say what kind of dent current recruitment levels would make in the doctor wait list.

"We are going to shoot for a much larger recruitment and we are working on a physician resource plan that is going to update the projected need in this province so we will have a more accurate sense," Perret said, adding the resource plan should be ready early next year.

The authority's physician recruitment website lists about 90 vacant positions, including locum positions — where physicians fill in when other doctors are absent or when health facilities are short-staffed.

Dr. Rick Gibson, the authority's senior medical director for primary health care, said the website numbers include positions that are currently vacant, as well as some that will be vacant because of expected retirements within the next 18 months to two years.

Gibson said Dartmouth faces a looming problem, with 40 per cent of doctors due to retire within five years.

"It's on our radar and it also highlights why we need a provincial approach to recruiting. At the same as we've got incentives to lure people to rural areas we've got Dartmouth sitting there with a large number of doctors leaving."

NDP committee member Claudia Chender said while she thinks health officials are working hard to address doctor shortages, their efforts appear to be "too little too late."

"We are looking at another decade where not only will every Nova Scotian not have a doctor, but we'll have a serious shortage," Chender said.