Why the Berwick area has the highest percentage of residents waiting for doctors

In the last year, Karen Haggerty has lost 125 pounds, but it’s not a cause for celebration.

The Windermere, N.S., woman says she has a poor appetite and vomits every day. The medical condition fuelling these symptoms remains unknown.

Haggerty’s efforts to find a cause are complicated by the fact she’s one of almost 56,000 Nova Scotians on a wait-list for a family doctor.

“Nobody seems to know what the problem is and that’s very infuriating considering I used to work in health care, I used to look after the elderly, so I know how the health-care system can work,” said the Annapolis Valley woman.

Haggerty recently joined the wait-list after being dropped by her family doctor in Berwick, which is in the community next to where she lives.

She said she was dropped for missing two appointments. She said she was unaware of the appointments.

Not alone

Haggerty isn’t the only person in her family without a family doctor.

Her father lives in nearby Waterville and has cancer in his bladder, liver and kidneys. A nurse practitioner comes to his residence to provide treatment.

Karen Haggerty has been without a family doctor for about one year. (Submitted by Karen Haggerty)

One of the biggest challenges the pair faces in finding a family doctor is geography.

According to a report released by the Nova Scotia Health Authority on Dec. 1, the Berwick zone has the highest percentage of people on the family doctor wait-list compared to the other areas of the province.

As of Dec. 1, the number was 16.5 per cent.

The statistic is for Berwick and nearby communities such as Aylesford, Waterville, Somerset and the Annapolis Valley First Nation.

For the three months since specific community data has been available, Berwick has had the highest average percentage at 15.87 per cent, followed by Liverpool at 14.6 per cent.

Crystal Todd, the department head of family medicine for the Nova Scotia Health Authority’s western zone, said Berwick is a “priority area” for attracting family doctors.

‘A lot of physician retirements’

She said that in the last year and a half, four doctors serving the Berwick area retired — at least two were working part time — while another went on an unexpected medical leave.

“We’ve got some elderly physicians and they’re all kind of in the same cohort age-range wise, so we’ve had a lot of physician retirements,” said Todd, speaking about the western zone, which covers the Annapolis Valley, South Shore and southwest part of the province.

Todd said there are five active doctors in Berwick, as well as a nurse practitioner. She said another doctor is expected to start practising in the community within the next six months.

In nearby Coldbrook, which falls under the Berwick zone, Todd said efforts are being made to market an existing collaborative care clinic that has room to expand.

“It’s one of the communities we have where when we show the collaborative practice, there’s excitement,” she said.

The geographic zone classified as Berwick has been hit hard by physicians retiring in the last year and a half. (Google Maps)

On days where Haggerty is feeling particularly unwell, she’s often faced with a choice.

“I wish I had a family doctor I could call and see, but I have to decide whether I want to go sit in outpatients for hours and hope to get helped or go to work,” said the 45-year-old who works in the food-service industry.

At outpatient facilities, Haggerty, who also suffers from chronic pain, said she finds the standard of care to be poorer.

“They don’t treat you the same,” she said. “They think you’re there for pain medication alone and that’s about it. They don’t see the history of the problem.”

Haggerty could go back to a family doctor she previously had in Kingston, which was a lengthy commute for her. Besides his inability to figure out what was ailing Haggerty, the bigger problem in going back to him is that he’s retiring.

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