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Health workers call for radical changes to health care to treat pandemic burnout

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Canada’s ailing health systems need some drastic intervention from federal and provincial governments if there is any hope of reviving them post-pandemic, an emergency summit of nearly 40 health-worker organizations concluded at an emergency meeting Wednesday.

Health workers have now endured two difficult years of pandemic conditions, leading to serious burnout across nearly all sectors of the health-care system.

“The real shared experience across health-care workers and professionals is that the level of burnout is to a point now where it’s really starting to threaten the sustainability of the system,” said Canadian Medical Association president Dr. Katharine Smart.

Read more: Nearly 600 N.B. health-care workers off job due to COVID-19 as restrictions set to lift

The summit, hosted by the Canadian Medical Association and the Canadian Nurses Association, was struck to chart a new course for health care in the face of widespread attrition.

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Personal service workers and nurses have coped with professionals leaving their jobs in droves or retiring early, while the CMA says doctors report that they plan to work fewer hours to deal with the fatigue.

As the rest of the country starts to talk about the possibility of post-pandemic recovery, health workers say for them there is no end in sight. Now that cases of COVID-19 have dropped, they still have to tackle the serious backlogs that grew while non-emergent care was put on hold during the peaks of the pandemic waves.

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The CMA says that hospitals are still over capacity, even as fewer COVID-19 patients need hospital care. That’s because beds are filling up with people who couldn’t get care during the pandemic, she said.

Provincial governments have recognized the problem and called for more money from the federal government to keep pace with the rising demands on their systems.

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NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh lent his support to the provinces’ request, standing outside Eagle Ridge Hospital in Port Moody, B.C., Thursday.

“Cutting health-care funding over the past number of decades has absolutely contributed to the crisis that we’re witnessing right now, and I can’t underline enough how important it is for us to properly fund our health-care system,” Singh said.

Read more: Masks still required inside B.C. airports and while flying, despite mandate ending

While health organizations seem to agree more long-term funding is needed, they also say money alone can only bandage the problem.

“You’re just endlessly funding a system that’s broken,” Smart said in an interview after the meeting Wednesday.

Smart said the system is now so depleted, there needs to be greater unity between provincial systems to keep things running.

That’s why the health-worker associations say have called for radical change and for the federal government to take on a greater role.

While health falls under provincial jurisdiction, the summit agreed on the need for a national strategy to get a handle on what kind of professionals are missing from Canada’s health systems and how many are needed.

The associations have also made calls for national licensing of health professionals so that they can move from province to province to where they are most needed.

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As for fixing the problem long-term, Smart said governments need to rethink the way care is delivered. For example, access to primary care might be improved by allowing physicians to work in integrated teams with specialists, she said. That way, patients whose needs are increasingly more complex would be better served and the job would be more appealing to physicians.

The House of Commons health committee has already begun to hear similar recommendations as part of its study on Canada’s health workforce.

“The status quo is clearly no longer an option. Failing to act now will lead to lower-quality care, longer wait times and worse health outcomes,” HealthCareCan president Paul-Emile Cloutier told the committee in February.

HealthCareCan is an association of health-care organizations and Canadian hospitals.

In a statement, Health Canada said the government shares the concerns of the health-care workers and action has been taken. The department is working with the Canadian Institute for Health Information to implement a physician resource planning tool to map out the physician workforce over a 30-year timeline.

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The government has also set up a dedicated portal with mental health resources, and a dedicated text line for front-line workers to connect them with immediate access to support, the statement said.

Among other initiatives, the government also plans to hire a chief nursing officer this spring to “bring nursing issues to the forefront federally.”

In general, Smart said governments have been receptive to ideas and keen to hold committees and take meetings and have even made some announcements, but so far there has been no substantial action taken.

She said she’ll be looking hopefully toward the federal budget this spring for signs of movement.

“I think the worst thing that can happen is that health-care professionals give up hope that the government is really going to work alongside us to transform the system, because I think when that happens, that’s when you’re going to see even more attrition,” Smart said.

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“I also think that we need to be honest about the fact that if we don’t start to actually see some of these changes happen, our health-care system is deeply under threat.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 10, 2022.

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