Specialists can bring smarter health care to N.B.

With the provincial election looming, the New Brunswick Medical Society is advocating a three-prong approach to creating Smarter Health Care for New Brunswickers. Our plan would see government hire more family physicians, reduce wait times in emergency departments by establishing quick care clinics led by family physicians, and fill 66 vacant specialty positions around the province.

New Brunswick’s health-care system has 66 specialist vacancies in important areas like cardiology, orthopedics and oncology. This is simply unacceptable, and the New Brunswick Medical Society is asking the province’s political leaders to consider this critical issue heading into the September election.

On average, people in this province spend about six months waiting for an initial consultation with a specialist after being referred by their family doctor. That’s about four months longer than the Canadian average, and five months longer than wait times in our province in 1993. This is not the type of positive change that New Brunswickers expect to see after 25 years. To achieve our goal of reaching the national average of 2.6 months by 2030, which I believe is possible for New Brunswick, we’ll need to examine both sides of the equation.

So how can we address the specialist vacancies in New Brunswick? First, I suggest a more active, aggressive recruitment push. Specialists often end up practicing where they trained, and since New Brunswick lacks specialist training programs, physicians must be convinced by a recruiter to move themselves and their families to our province. That’s why we suggest hiring a private sector recruiter, who is dedicated to filling the 66 vacant specialist positions.

Of course, even if specialists agree to come to New Brunswick, they must be able to find space to practice. That means the provincial government must address operating room availability and hospital bed shortages as soon as possible. Currently approximately 25 percent of hospital beds are occupied by seniors waiting for nursing home placement.

Wait times can also be shortened through more efficient processes. The provincial intake system should be reexamined by a task force with recommendations implemented. Many unnecessary delays in patient consultation are caused by inadequate adoption of technology. In many cases, e-referrals and virtual consults could be used to shorten the time between the family doctor referral and the initial consultation, which makes up a large portion of the 26.5-week average specialist wait time in our province.

Even making it to the initial consultation with a specialist is only the first step – most patients requiring surgery or further treatment must wait a further 15 weeks to receive treatment for whatever is ailing them. All of this waiting adds up to precious time lost for our most vulnerable New Brunswickers, who deserve the best and quickest care we have to offer. New Brunswick has a rapidly aging population, and high uptake rate on specialist care. In fact, 40 per cent of New Brunswickers have seen a specialist in the last 12 months.

The strategy involves attracting specialists to New Brunswick and making sure our health-care environment is set up for them to stay and thrive. This can only happen with better recruitment efforts, a focus on hospital resources, and continuous critical examination of referral and consultation methods.

Long wait times cannot continue to be the norm in New Brunswick. Patient care is too important to the overall health of our care delivery system. That is a critical element of our prescription for smarter health care in our province.

Dr. Dharm Singh, MD, FACS, is the President of the New Brunswick Medical Society.