Number of newborns in N.S. without a family doctor, care provider on the rise

An increase in the number of newborns being referred to designated newborn clinics in the province is troubling, says the Nova Scotia NDP.

The clinics, called unattached newborn clinics, were launched by Nova Scotia Health in December 2022 to provide care for newborns who do not have a family doctor or primary care provider.

A release from the provincial NDP caucus says 941 of the 5,922 babies born in 2023 were referred to clinics.

The number of referrals has steadily increased each quarter according to figures obtained by a freedom of information request, the NDP release said.

Susan Leblanc, the party's health and wellness spokesperson, said the numbers are concerning.

"Babies are vulnerable and require a lot of checks when they're newborn," Leblanc said.

"There's nothing more comforting than your family physician or nurse practitioner seeing your baby when they're a day old or two days old and following them through their infancy."

Dartmouth North MLA Susan LeBlanc is one of the NDP representatives on the public accounts committee.
Dartmouth North MLA Susan Leblanc is the NDP's health and wellness spokesperson. (Michael Gorman/CBC)

Leblanc said the increase in referrals to the centres parallels the percentage of Nova Scotia residents on the waiting list for a family doctor.

She attributed both to an increasing population and said while that increase is a welcome development, it is outpacing the growth of primary health-care services.

If the province wants to retain new residents and young Nova Scotians, it must ensure that everyone has proper access to health resources, she said.

Ashley Harnish is a health services manager with Nova Scotia Health. She says the health authority is taking steps to reduce the wait times for getting access to long COVID care in the province.
Ashley Harnish is director of primary care for Nova Scotia Health's central zone. (Robert Short/CBC)

Ashley Harnish, the director of primary care for Nova Scotia Health's central zone, said the province — and the central zone in particular — has been experiencing significant population growth.

Harnish said the health authority has prepared for the upward trend of referrals to clinics for newborns and has been deploying clinicians to support them.

The authority has been working hard to keep pace with the growth, she said.

"In the interim, folks need access to care and services," Harnish said.

"Programs and clinics like the unattached newborn are our way of bridging that support while we continue to right size, round out and get the infrastructure and the staff for everybody to have access to a health home."

She said clinics provide comprehensive care similar to family doctors, including regular checkups and immunizations, and ensure continuity of care by maintaining detailed medical records.

Dr. Gehad Gobran, the newly elected president fo Doctors Nova Scotia
Dr. Gehad Gobran is the newly elected president of Doctors Nova Scotia. (Doctors Nova Scotia)

Meanwhile, Dr. Gehad Gobran, the new president of Doctors Nova Scotia, said a shortage of family doctors in the province is affecting all patients, including newborns.

Gobran said while doctors at the unattached clinics can see the child, provide care and track their progress over a year, family doctors remain the "core of medicine."

He said having enough family doctors for everyone remains a challenge.

Part of the problem, Gobran said, is that family doctors have other demands they have to fulfil, such as nursing homes, emergency medicine, sexual health, addiction medicine and hospitals.

"Too many areas have to be filled ... and family physicians are really, really burned out," he said.

"Twenty-three per cent of family physicians working now are over the age of 60. And we don't know how long they can keep themselves in practice."

One measure the Nova Scotia NDP thinks would improve the quality of care for newborns is an expansion of midwifery services in the province.

CJ Blennerhassett, vice president of the Association of Nova Scotia Midwives
CJ Blennerhassett is the vice-president of the Association of Nova Scotia Midwives. ( Julia Robinson Photography)

There are now 16 midwives in Nova Scotia, though some areas like Cape Breton have no midwifery services available.

LeBlanc would like to see midwives trained in Nova Scotia to ensure that their services are available across the province.

CJ Blennerhassett, vice-president of the Association of Nova Scotia Midwives, would also like to see a training program in the province to address the shortage of midwives.

Blennerhassett said midwives offer critical support in the first six weeks after birth but would like to see that extended to encompass the first year.

"We are underutilized in our health-care system. And that's not unique to Nova Scotia. That's true across the country. We really just want to help."