Physicians encouraged by new provincial health plan

For the last several years, the New Brunswick Medical Society (NBMS) has written in this space about the need for a new provincial health plan to map out a sustainable future for the health and well-being of New Brunswickers.

The problems are well documented: a shortage of health human resources; long wait times for primary, emergency, and surgical care access; an aging population and high rates of chronic health problems; and limited mental health and addictions resources.

This week, the provincial government unveiled its five-year provincial health plan, Stabilizing Health Care: An Urgent Call to Action. Physicians are strongly encouraged by the contents of the plan. There are many details to be refined, however the targets and timelines set by government provide clear goals to improve wait times and improve access to care.

We are encouraged that the health plan addresses many of the same opportunities and challenges that the NBMS captured in the 57 recommendations to improve the health system that we submitted to government earlier this year.

The five areas addressed in government’s health plan are of critical importance to improving health care:

Access to primary care: Physicians encounter patients every day who suffer from lack of access to a primary care provider. The New Brunswick Primary Care Network will offer a new, innovative entry point to the health system for approximately 40,000 New Brunswickers. Physicians are extremely busy with their current patient loads but understand the needs of New Brunswickers and want to help by offering more access through the Primary Care Network. At the same time, we must enhance recruitment efforts for family physicians to provide permanent medical homes for New Brunswickers.

Access to surgery: New Brunswick has long struggled with wait times for surgeries that exceed the national average. We are encouraged to see innovative approaches developed to address the lengthy wait times that patients experience while waiting for surgeries. Successful pilot projects in the province, including the hip and knee replacement initiative in Saint John, have shown that we can improve wait times through innovation and a focused effort.

Create a connected system: Leveraging allied health partners and technology to create better integration in the health system while empowering New Brunswickers with more control over when and where they receive health care is an important step to modernizing the health-care experience and making it more accessible.

Access to addiction and mental health services: There is far greater awareness about the importance mental health and addictions services today, but access to these services has been limited and inconsistent across much of our province. Adding walk-in care services, launching a new 24/7 crisis response line, and piloting initiatives to prevent or curb substance abuse are excellent steps to improve access and offer New Brunswickers the services they need.

Support seniors to age in place: Expanding Extra-Mural Program services and leveraging technology to enable seniors to live independently for as long as possible are positive steps to improve the lives of New Brunswick’s senior population. Ensuring seniors have the resources, programming, and care available where they live should also reduce capacity in our hospital system.

In its health plan, government noted that people, technology, funding, and governance are critical to achieving the targets set out in the health plan and to improving patient care. We agree. We need people and technology to provide care along with dedicated funding and a strong governance model to monitor the system, filling gaps and finding solutions to challenges on an ongoing basis. We have long believed that physicians are best able to recruit other physicians, and the NBMS is pleased to partner with government on physician recruitment and retention efforts.

Moving forward, the NBMS would like to see focus placed on addressing the social determinants of health. Poverty and homelessness are challenges across the province, directly impacting the health and well-being of a significant number of our citizens. A comprehensive approach to reducing poverty is needed.

In addition, New Brunswick needs to take a strong look at how we care for other marginalized populations including First Nations and LGBTQ2A+ persons whose interactions with the health system are often affected by social, behavioural, and structural factors including deep-rooted stigma and discrimination.

We must also review reproductive services in the province. Currently, surgical abortions are only available in two cities in New Brunswick: Moncton and Bathurst. Limiting access to this service disproportionately impacts marginalized New Brunswickers including those living on low income or without access to transportation.

There is more work to be done. However, the NBMS is pleased with the new provincial health plan and eager to work with allied health professionals and government to improve health care for all New Brunswickers.

Dr. Mark MacMillan is a gastroenterologist, hepatologist, and internal medicine specialist at the Dr. Everett Chalmers Regional Hospital in Fredericton. He is the President of the New Brunswick Medical Society.