Sackville residents say they want better access to primary-care providers and transportation services to and from Moncton for specialist appointments.
Those concerns, along with calls to retain existing services at the Sackville Memorial Hospital, were raised Thursday night during the first of several virtual public consultation sessions being held by the province as it prepares a five-year plan to improve New Brunswick's health-care system.
Held over Zoom, the session opened with remarks from Premier Blaine Higgs and Health Minister Dorothy Shephard.
Following those remarks, the participants, who numbered about 170 at one point, were split up into groups, where they were asked to discuss some of their biggest concerns and priorities for health care in their area.
Access to doctors, transportation common concerns
"The family doctors was the first issue and was talked about a lot during our conversation," Hannah Ehler said when she shared the thoughts of the group she facilitated.
"Having three to four weeks to wait for a family doctor is simply is the reality, but it doesn't address urgent matters. So one of the solutions brought up was having the ability to see another doctor if there are cases that are more urgent, in case accessing a family doctor is not possible at that time.
"Also, introducing practitioners and other specialists in the area would greatly benefit easing the workload of doctors."
Ehler said transportation was also a big issue brought up by members of her discussion group.
"It is difficult to go to Moncton and see specialists if you don't have the means to travel there, and you need a specialist for many, many things. And so that is definitely a barrier."
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Shephard said she believes New Brunswick has the potential to have a health-care system where workers are as equally satisfied as patients. Once that's achieved, "it will be a recruitment and retention tool like no other province has."
However, Shephard stopped short of revealing any specific strategy on acquiring and retaining doctors in New Brunswick.
She did say she has a vision for primary care possibly involving a more diverse and collaborative approach, with doctors and nurse practitioners working together.
On transportation, Shephard said she has "a bit of frustration" that there's been no government that's yet come up with a transportation strategy in the province.
"So I don' t know what it looks like but I know it can have a profound effect on poverty, on the ability to access health care, health treatment, health testing," she said.
Proposed nighttime ER closures not forgotten
In opening the meeting, Higgs stressed his government's promise not to close hospital emergency rooms or reduce hours of service.
The assurances came a little over a year after his government first announced its plan in February 2020 to eliminate the nighttime operation of six hospital ERs as a way of shifting scant resources to the delivery of primary care during the day to benefit more patients.
The Sackville Memorial Hospital was going to be one of those to lose its nighttime ER service, but following a public backlash, the province reversed its decision within days of the announcement.
Echoes of that backlash rang in the responses conveyed by some of the facilitators, who said their groups expressed concerns over the elimination of services at Sackville's hospital.
Asked if the province can maintain services while making changes in health care, Shephard repeatedly returned to the concept of creating a "network of excellence," whereby every hospital in the province plays a role in providing care to all New Brunswickers.
"There are some things that need to be addressed, and I believe we need to look at every single hospital in our province and maximize the opportunities we have there," Shephard said.
"What that looks like right now, I'm not sure, but I think I want every one of them to have comfort in knowing their hospitals are there and we're going to use them to our fullest potential."