N.B. must be bold with health system change

After perhaps the longest year and a half many of us have ever experienced, we are “green” in New Brunswick. This is not without challenges, as we have witnessed recently in the Moncton region. We should be encouraged by our track record through the pandemic. However, we must remain vigilant against the more contagious Delta variant. Children under 12 are not yet eligible for vaccination against the virus. With schools reopening in less than two weeks, it is imperative that we do all we can to protect our youth.

At the same time, we cannot take our focus off the many other health-care challenges in our province.

Our health system continues to weather alarming problems, including a human resource crisis that threatens critical services like primary, specialty, emergency, and surgical care.

More than 150 vacancies are listed on the government’s physician recruitment website, and we know there are hundreds of nursing vacancies. Wait times for specialist care rank among the highest in the country and access to mental health resources is inadequate. New Brunswickers who identify as 2SLGBTQ+ face barriers accessing health care. Access to abortion — which requires timely intervention — remains limited to only two regions of the province. These are a few of our many challenges.

Earlier this year, Health Minister Dorothy Shephard announced a broad consultation process aimed at reforming the health system through a new five-year health plan.

In a discussion paper released in January, the province outlined many health system challenges it is seeking to address. I am encouraged by these objectives which line up well with the challenges physicians see in our health system every day.

Here’s what we know: the status quo will not yield the results New Brunswickers are seeking from their health system. Health care in New Brunswick is in serious need of a renewed provincial health plan built in collaboration with government, health-care leaders, and community stakeholders. To effect meaningful change, we must all work together.

I firmly believe that with government, the regional health authorities, physicians, nurses, and other care providers and stakeholders working together, we can effect meaningful change to our health system and improve the health of our population.

As a part of the provincial government’s public engagement process, the NBMS submitted 57 recommendations to improve health care. These recommendations are focused on reducing poverty for the most vulnerable New Brunswickers, realigning limited resources and leveraging technology in a strained system, and investing in the people delivering health care. They touch on a wide variety of important topics including population health, primary health care, wait times, mental health and addictions, seniors care, health human resources, and 2SLGBTQ+ care.

The recommendations were created based on the insights and experiences of New Brunswick physicians. The NBMS surveyed its physician members, gathering responses from more than 500 physicians in all corners of the province. To enhance responses, data and best practices were researched from across Canada and the world.

To effect change, we must be bold.

These are just some of the things we need to achieve:

  • create a comprehensive health human resources strategy to ensure we have the health-care providers needed for today and in the future;
  • double down on existing poverty reduction strategies, including job creation and safe workplaces, housing, and income supplements;
  • promote healthy aging, modernize long-term care facilities, and streamline processes for alternate level of care patients;
  • lean into technology — we have seen how virtual care can be a powerful tool in making health care more accessible to patients over the past year;
  • improve access to primary, specialty, emergency, and surgical care; and
  • address the opioid challenge impacting far too many New Brunswickers.

Our success through the pandemic was achieved because we collaborated, we were bold, and we were flexible in our approach. We must continue to be bold if we are to deliver the health care that New Brunswickers deserve.

Finally, I would encourage any New Brunswicker who has not received a COVID-19 vaccine to do so. With the more contagious Delta variant in our midst and causing a resurgence in cases across much of the world, it is critical that everyone who can get a vaccine does so to protect themselves, their loved ones, and their communities.

If you have concerns about the vaccine, please speak with your physician, other primary care provider, or pharmacist so that they can answer your questions and help you make an informed decision. Vaccines are our best protection against the virus.

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