Expect more short-term health-care crises if N.L.'s fundamental problems aren't fixed, say critics

Sister Elizabeth Davis says the fundamental solutions of the provincial Health Accord won't be achievable if all the province does is focus on putting out fires. (Carolyn Stokes/CBC - image credit)
Sister Elizabeth Davis says the fundamental solutions of the provincial Health Accord won't be achievable if all the province does is focus on putting out fires. (Carolyn Stokes/CBC - image credit)
Carolyn Stokes/CBC
Carolyn Stokes/CBC

One of the minds behind the provincial Health Accord says there are fundamental problems leading to the most recent health-care pressures that have caused emergency rooms and hospitals to overflow.

But fundamental problems need fundamental responses, Health Accord co-chair Sister Elizabeth Davis told CBC News on Wednesday.

"Now, as has been rightly pointed out, we have to move more quickly on making it happen," Davis said.

The Health Accord blueprint is the Newfoundland and Labrador government's long-term, 10-year strategy for revamping its health-care system.

The focus of the 262-page report and its 59 recommendations is long-term solutions, noted Davis.

"We have to be very clear that short-term solutions here are not what the Health Accord is about, but we do need to address the short-term concerns," she said.

"The Department of Health and Community Services, with the regional health authorities, have a responsibility to do that."

Davis warns, however, that by continuing to put out small fires, the province runs the risk of making the same mistakes  it has in the past.

"The change that we need to bring about is much more fundamental than that and it has to look at the bigger picture," she said.


The short-term fixes are also untenable, says the NDP's health critic, following a weekend in which Eastern Health publicly asked people to stay away from the two emergency rooms in St. John's unless experiencing a medical emergency.

Jim Dinn told CBC News said it's not reasonable to expect people to know whether they should go to an emergency room — and in many cases, people don't have another option.

"It's putting people in the position of trying to be their own physicians when they're not medically qualified," he said. "People are there, they're going to emergency in many cases because they have no doctor to go to."

Peter Cowan/CBC
Peter Cowan/CBC

Asking people to determine whether a condition or illness warrants a trip to the emergency room causes a lot of "emotional turmoil," said Dinn.

"How do you make that decision? How do you make that decision for someone that maybe you're caring for?" he said.

"Maybe for yourself you can make that decision, but what if it's a child you've got, or what if it's a loved one? You're not going to leave that to your own judgment. This is going to make life very difficult for people, and it's not helping the system in any way, shape or form."

Dinn acknowledged health-care problems aren't limited to Newfoundland and Labrador — but the fact shortages are being seen elsewhere only makes it more critical to take more sustainable action.

"It's good to know, from a global context, a nationwide context, that we're not alone," he said. "That's good for understanding the problem but that can't be the excuse for not fixing it."

Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada
Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada

Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association president Dr. Kris Luscombe told CBC News Thursday that bed and nursing shortages are affecting inpatient services.

He said a lack of capacity obviously leads to backups across the system.

"It definitely cascades through the system and it really then means that if you can't access beds you really have to be reflective about how do you monitor individuals that may be just on the edge of needing to be admitted," he said.

"Undoubtedly, and I know for physicians on the front lines, it's really frustrating."

He said the NLMA's priority right now is retaining its current physicians. He said while it's nice to focus on recruiting more physicians, it's important to be mindful about how to support existing physicians and how to make sure they don't abandon their current practices.

"One of the first things I'd recommend to everyone who does not have a family doctor or nurse practitioner is to get your name on the province's registry Patient Connect NL," said Luscombe.

"That helps us at least to identify where people are lacking primary care and get a better sense of that number and of course it's from that registry that people will eventually get attached to primary care services."

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