The Quebec government is giving itself three years to reform its beleaguered health-care system into something that will be a source of pride for citizens, Health Minister Christian Dubé said Tuesday.
The sweeping plan Dubé outlined includes ending mandatory overtime for nurses, investing in home care and hospital upgrades, more partnerships with the private sector and better access to data.
Dubé told a news conference that while the system has long been in need of reform, the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated why the government can’t afford to wait.
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“I think we’ve seen, in the last two years during the pandemic, things we don’t want to go through again,” he said.
He said the Coalition Avenir Québec government will introduce a single portal that Quebecers can use to access front-line health services, including booking appointments with a family doctor for those who don’t have one.
He said the system has already been implemented as a pilot project in some smaller areas, including Rimouski, adding that about half of the “orphan” patients without a family doctor across the province should have access by the end of the summer. Currently, some one million Quebecers don’t have a family doctor, he said.
Dubé faced multiple questions on what he would do to reduce that list, and how the creation of a portal would ensure enough appointments are available. He said co-ordinators would work to match patients to available appointments, and in some cases doctors could be asked to free up a small number of slots.
“For a doctor that sees, say, 100 patients in a week, to see two or three patients more is not very much, but can make a big difference to the people that need a doctor,” he said.
The 50-item plan, which comes ahead of a fall election, also promises to recruit more health workers, including some 1,000 from abroad. It aims to improve working conditions, in particular through the end of forced overtime for nurses. The government says it will hire 3,000 administrative staff to handle paperwork, freeing up health workers to spend more time with patients.
The government will also partner with private clinics to reduce surgical waiting lists and relieve pressure on doctors by delegating more responsibility to pharmacists, paramedics and specialist nurses.
He also said the province plans to open up another 4,000 hospital beds to close the gap between Quebec and other provinces and countries in terms of beds per capita. Quebec has two beds per thousand residents compared with 2.5 in the rest of Canada. Half of the new beds will be opened as soon as there’s enough staff, he said, while the rest will be created through renovating existing facilities and building new ones.
The management of the health system will also be decentralized to make it more efficient, he said.
The plan notes that the COVID-19 pandemic exposed weaknesses in the system, including staff shortages in elder care and outdated systems and technology that make it hard to respond to a crisis. Quebec has had more than 14,300 deaths from COVID-19, the most of any province. The pandemic has also left the province with a daunting surgery wait-list some 160,000 people long.
However, Dubé said the crisis showed that the network was capable of both “little miracles” and major mobilization.
“Despite the pandemic, we had good successes,” Dubé said, referring in particular to the mass COVID-19 vaccination campaign. “We know we’re capable.”
While most of the elements of the plan were not costed, Dubé says the bulk of the funding will come from the $8.9 billion that was allocated for health-care system upgrades over the next five years in last week’s provincial budget. He noted the budget also allocated an additional $2.8 billion for health-care infrastructure spending that will be used to build new seniors homes and to expand or renovate hospitals.
— with files from Global News’ Kalina Laframboise