All hands on deck to move health-care system forward

New Brunswick’s health system has endured a tumultuous 2020.

This week we learned of a COVID-19 outbreak in Moncton. Our province has deftly avoided the worst of the global pandemic to date, but this is not our first outbreak, nor will it be our last. It is a difficult reminder that this virus is persistent and will take every opportunity we give it to spread. It also reminds us that we must take every precaution to prevent that spread by following Public Health’s guidance.

The challenging times of COVID-19 have required adaptability and innovation on the part of government, businesses, our health system, and indeed all New Brunswickers. Physicians and other health-care professionals have been working tirelessly to ensure patients are cared for and that our fragile health-care system is prepared for a second wave.

As the new president of the New Brunswick Medical Society (NBMS), I look forward to working with our new Minister of Health, Dorothy Shephard, on behalf of physicians and their patients in the coming months.

And there is no shortage of tasks ahead.

Apart from the COVID-19 outbreak, news headlines in recent weeks have summarized many of our health-care challenges:

  • The Moncton Hospital had to recently cancel a day’s worth of elective surgeries due to capacity issues, putting nine patients back on a waiting list.
  • The Sackville Memorial Hospital had to close its emergency department overnight because of a lack of physicians.
  • Fredericton’s Clinic 554, a family medicine practice that offered surgical abortion services and specialized care for the LGBTQ+ community has closed due to provincial regulations prohibiting funding of surgical abortions outside of hospitals.
  • The Restigouche region has lost at least four physicians in recent months.
  • More than 37,000 people are on the Patient Connect list.
  • New Brunswick continues to experience a paramedic shortage, especially in rural and northern regions.
  • Gordon Dow, a respected infectious disease specialist in Moncton, warned about the growing problem of injection drug use in New Brunswick.

These are just some of the challenges the health system is dealing with. Many of these issues are not new; they have worsened over the years and will take time to correct. They require bold, tangible action now.

Minister Shephard has expressed a willingness to collaborate with New Brunswick’s physicians to improve our health system, and it is a willingness we share.

I was born and raised next door in Nova Scotia but began my medical career and started a family across the country in British Columbia. When I returned to the Maritimes and opened practice in New Brunswick 20 years ago to be closer to family, I was quick to realize what a strong, collaborative, and professional medical community we have here.

It’s a medical community that cares deeply about its patients and the future of the health system. We see this through the drive-thru flu vaccine clinics that physicians, nurses, and pharmacists are holding around the province to ensure New Brunswickers can safely get the vaccine in these strange times we live in.

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that when faced with unprecedented challenge, government and health-care professionals can work together to respond to the needs of citizens. The rapid expansion of virtual care is a product of that collaboration, something I intend to cement as a permanent fixture of our health system.

Since the elimination of physician billing numbers in December 2019, the NBMS and government have been working toward an enhanced physician recruitment and retention program with special focus on rural and northern communities. That work was paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but productive discussions have resumed.

There are many other areas in which we can work together to build a better system.

We need a new provincial health plan. The last provincial health plan expired in 2018. Government, physicians, nurses, the regional health authorities, and other stakeholders including the public must assemble to build a new plan, one that takes a holistic view of the health system and the needs of New Brunswickers. We need to ensure that each community’s basic needs are being met.

There are many issues to consider: how we address the shortage of health-care professionals and available hospital beds; shortening what are among the longest wait times for surgeries and emergency care in the country; caring for the largest proportion of seniors in the country and a population with high rates of chronic health problems such as diabetes, heart disease; and improving access to mental health and addictions resources.

The NBMS will also continue to advocate for improved access to reproductive care including abortion, mental health services, and medical assistance in dying.

Finally, we must continue to work together to get through this pandemic.

I urge New Brunswickers to continue to follow the guidance of Public Health: practise good hygiene including proper handwashing, coughing and sneezing into tissues or elbows, and avoiding touching your face. Wear a face mask and respect social/physical-distancing measures. Self-isolate if you feel unwell. We must all do our part and work together with kindness, respect, and empathy.

And please, get your flu shot.

Dr. Jeff Steeves, FRCSC, is an ophthalmologist in Rothesay and the new president of the New Brunswick Medical Society.