Featured Doctors

Dr. Joe Gillis

Yarmouth, N.S.

"We need health-care providers to be resilient. Setting up a supportive environment ensures we’re all rowing in the same direction and is important to survival."

A photo of Dr. Joe Gillis in an examination room with a mom and baby

Forging His Own Path

Medical school might have looked like an unusual choice for Yarmouth family physician Dr. Joe Gillis. When he decided to apply, he was in his mid-thirties and had a busy career in public relations.

He had spent 10 years working in various PR jobs at hospitals in Alberta and Capital Health in Nova Scotia, as well stints with Communications Nova Scotia, Nova Scotia Business Inc. and as press secretary for the premier’s office.

It was time for a career change and medicine seemed to offer a meaningful option. “I was involved in health care doing PR, but I wanted to be closer to the direct patient care component of that,” said Dr. Gillis. “I liked the idea of supporting health-care providers and supporting the system, but I wanted to be closer to the realness of the patient encounter and help people directly.”

Two unsuccessful applications to Dalhousie Medical School led him to apply to Saba University School of Medicine in the Caribbean. “I was 35 and single, and didn’t have much to hold me back,” he recalled. “I thought, if I don’t try this now, I never will. I gave it my all and got through.”

After graduating in 2012, he completed his family medicine residency in North Carolina. He had married during medical school and decided to settle down in Yarmouth, where his wife is from.

Practising family medicine in a rural community had always appealed to him. “I grew up in Creignish, Cape Breton. I liked the idea of being a rural family doc who does a bit of everything.”

During his first six years in practice, Dr. Gillis worked as a family doctor, provided hospitalist care one week a month and worked part time in the emergency department at Yarmouth Regional Hospital. He also provided prenatal care and delivered babies. It was a busy, hectic time, particularly as he and his wife, a school counsellor at the local high school, welcomed three children into their family.

“There was a point in May 2022 where my wife said, ‘Something’s got to give,’” recalled Dr. Gillis. “Our kids were getting older and were getting involved in more things, so I had to step back.”

He stopped providing prenatal care but continued being a family doctor to more than 900 patients in his care. He also adjusted his schedule to work more in the emergency department, providing 90 to 100 hours of emergency department coverage each month.

“It’s challenging and sometimes exhausting, but the fact I do different things works for me. I can have a full-out day in the ED and then come to the office and it’s a little more laidback and I can spend time with my patients and residents.”

Dr. Gillis also provides hospitalist care one week every three or four months and is medical site lead at the hospital. “My background provides me with a skillset that physicians don’t necessarily have coming right out of med school with no other previous background. If it helps me further local causes, then I’m all for it.”

Mentoring medical learners is a key part of his work. He shares his family practice with Drs. Tyler Green, Maddy Arkle and Andrew Welton; they work with three family medicine residents from the Southwest Nova site of Dalhousie Family Medicine. “I like the excitement of residents – seeing them learn and figure things out,” said Dr. Gillis.

“The satisfaction and confidence that comes from doing something maybe that you’re not comfortable with and coming out the other side with more knowledge that you can apply the next time. It’s rewarding for me to feel that I’m part of that.”

Dr. Gillis says he and his colleagues have had some success retaining residents over the years. “Once they’re here, they like it. But it’s hard to get people here because of the upfront factors – being three hours away from Halifax, for instance. I think attracting people who have grown up in a rural community helps.”

He says the biggest selling point for new recruits is the support and collegiality among doctors and staff in Yarmouth. “I can’t imagine it being better anywhere else. I can call up specialists about a patient and have an answer right away. It’s a very supportive place to work and our residents see that. They can sit in the doctor’s lounge and talk about any medical question. It makes it comfortable to learn.”

Dr. Mahham Shafiq is one of the family medicine residents working with Dr. Gillis. An international medical graduate from Pakistan, she’s experiencing a bit of everything at the clinic, including chronic disease management, minor surgical procedures, pediatrics, psychiatry and women’s health.

“I’ve been here for five months, so I’m already seeing patients for follow-ups,” she said. “It’s so nice to provide that continuity of care. I feel welcomed by the community.”

The health and wellness of medical learners like Dr. Shafiq is also a priority. Dr. Gillis notes that all residents in their clinic are matched with a family doctor when they arrive.

Having a full spectrum of support is key when working in an underserviced community where there is immense pressure on all health-care providers. “It starts with ensuring people have the capacity to absorb, respond and be resourceful to tackle problems and systemic gaps,” Dr. Gillis said.

“We’re seeing a lot of pressures that we’ve never felt before. The EDs are full, the hospitals are full, people are complex and patients expect answers quickly. We need health-care providers to be resilient. Setting up a supportive environment ensures we’re all rowing in the same direction and is important to survival.”

Dr. Gillis is up to the task. He is dedicated to nurturing his medical team, and the broader community, for the future.

“When I was doing PR, I’d get bored and would switch jobs every two and a half years. I’ve not felt that way with family medicine. It’s a new challenge all the time. That’s the beauty of it – there’s so much to learn. Patients are the ones who will teach you what you need to know.”

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