Taking a closer look at cancer services in Yarmouth, Digby and Shelburne counties

Nova Scotia Health Authority’s (NSHA) Nova Scotia Cancer Care Program is conducting a review of cancer services in Yarmouth, Digby and Shelburne counties, to determine the feasibility and sustainability of adding radiation therapy services at Yarmouth Regional Hospital.

“Being diagnosed with cancer is stressful and patients and families in southwestern Nova Scotia have told us that traveling to Halifax for radiation therapy is an added strain,” said Dr. Drew Bethune, Medical Director, Nova Scotia Cancer Care Program. “They have asked us to take another look at the possibility of having these services at the Yarmouth Regional Hospital and that’s what we are doing. We are also considering other supports to help improve access to care for patients when they need to travel for specialty cancer services.”

A steering committee of cancer health professionals, patient and public representatives from southwestern Nova Scotia and Cancer Care Program leaders are guiding the process.

“Having cancer program staff, patients and community stakeholder representatives from Yarmouth and surrounding area as members on the steering committee is key to ensuring an informed and transparent process,” said Erika Nicholson, Senior Director, Nova Scotia Cancer Care Program. “Patients, families and others who are interested in sharing their thoughts will be invited to participate in a focus group, or complete an electronic survey.”

Dr. Helmut Hollenhorst, a radiation oncologist from Halifax and a steering committee member, traveled to Yarmouth regularly between 2005 and 2015, providing patients with consultation and follow-up so they didn’t have to travel for these services. Today, these consults occur through Telehealth video technology. He said radiation therapy is a highly specialized cancer treatment and a decision to add a service in Yarmouth or elsewhere is complex and must consider the patient perspective, the initial and ongoing costs, as well as other factors.

“Having to travel for treatment is a challenge, especially when you’re not feeling well,” he said. “As part of the review, we must ask for input and listen very carefully to patients and families. We also need to consider the significant investment of building and design, equipment purchase and maintenance, as well as our ability to successfully recruit a specialized clinical team and support staff and cover ongoing operational costs. Even with a facility in Yarmouth, patients who need complex radiation therapy would still have to travel to Halifax.”
As part of the review, work is already underway to:

  • Study recent cancer statistics to determine the potential number of patients in southwestern Nova Scotia who would benefit
  • Reach out to other provinces for information and expertise
  • Research cost estimates to design and build physical space (bunker), purchase and maintain equipment, should a decision be made to do so
  • Determine the size, makeup and budget for a clinical team needed to operate a radiation therapy service; and
  • Consider other cancer priorities and needs across the province and the trade-offs that would be necessary to add radiation therapy services in Yarmouth.

The goal is to have the review complete by late spring 2018.