Amid what many are calling a health-care crisis, those on the front lines want Canadian premiers, who will gather for their first in-person meeting since 2019, to come up with a concrete action plan.
When Kaitlin Laverdure took her two-year-old daughter Everleigh to the emergency room in Pembroke, Ont., in May, she never dreamed she would have to wait for 10 hours, only to have doctors and staff forget about them.
Unable to get an appointment with her family doctor, Laverdure was left with no option but to take her toddler to the ER after weeks of receiving no treatment or answers about her daughter’s persistent raspy cough. She worried it could be pneumonia.
At the hospital, after the initial wait to get through triage, Laverdure and her daughter were ushered into a room and told to wait again.
A doctor did come in at one point, but left shortly after, promising to return. He never did.
Finally, a custodian came by and noticed the mother and child.
“Have you been seen yet?” the custodian asked.
“No. The doctor came and he left and I haven’t seen anybody since then. It’s been hours,” Laverdure replied. It was now well past her toddler’s bedtime.
The custodian went and found a doctor, who arrived another half an hour later, apologetic.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “No one told me that you were in this room. We actually forgot about you.”
Laverdure says the experience has left her feeling as though she might as well not bother seeking in-person medical care.
“I’m very shocked about it, actually,” she said. “I’m actually really sad that this is the world that our children have to grow up in. It’s not like how it was when we were growing up. And it’s very heartbreaking.”
Laverdure is just one of millions of Canadians struggling to access medical care within a health system that is crippling under the weight of worker shortages and employee burnout.
After working through the trauma of treating dying patients for more than two years during the COVID-19 pandemic, health-care workers across the country are now dealing with overflows of patients who delayed seeking medical care during lockdowns. Health workers are now so overworked, many are exiting the profession, leaving even more work for those who remain.
The situation is so dire, many are calling it a crisis.
That’s how Linda Silas, president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, describes it.
“One in two nurses are telling us, ‘I’m leaving.’ One in two. And 20 per cent of all health-care workers in Canada are saying, ‘I’m retiring,’” Silas said.
“We do not have enough educated experienced bodies to deal with the demands of the health-care system and our population … That is of crisis proportions.”
That’s why a number of those on the front lines of health care are taking their message to premiers this week, where the provincial and territorial leaders will gather for their first in-person meeting since 2019, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The premiers plan to focus their discussions on health care, notably their united message to the federal government to increase federal health transfers to the provinces and territories. They want Ottawa to increase its share of overall health spending to 35 per cent from 22 per cent.
B.C. Premier John Horgan, who is chairing the meetings in Victoria this week, says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised all premiers he would discuss the provinces’ demands for greater health transfers after the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic was over.
That conversation and a national plan to address health funding has not yet happened, despite numerous calls and meetings between senior staff and cabinet ministers, Horgan says. As a result, he says he is “profoundly disappointed” at this lack of advancement on health care.
“This isn’t about us ganging up on the federal government,” he said in an interview with Global News.
“This is about us asking the federal government to collaborate with us to deliver the number one social program that separates Canadians from Americans. That thing that we hold dear … That accessible, publicly-funded health care is what Canadians work towards.”
In order to meet the expectations of Canadians and address the many serious challenges in the system, more money from Ottawa is necessary, Horgan says.
“We need to have certainty from the federal government that they take the dollars that provincial citizens send to them and send them back to us so that we can deliver those services.”
But Silas says she doesn’t want to see the premiers meeting focus simply on pushing the federal government for more dollars.
The Canadian Nurses Association is among many organizations and individuals calling for them to develop a plan to address the crisis, including a national strategy on health human resources.
As part of this plan, they would like to see provinces collaborate on actions that will help retain the existing workforce and recruit new professionals to the system. Many provinces do this kind of work already, but Silas says this has been a patchwork approach that often ends up with different provinces and territories competing with one another for doctors and other health professionals.
“We have to stop this vicious circle of supply and demand,” Silas said.
“The federal government needs to develop an agency that will have the proper data and the proper strategies to help the province and territories … and of course, attach it to funding.”
Better nurse-patient ratios, more strategically-planned tuition funding and better working conditions for workers should be explored as part of this action plan, Silas said.
But also, the provinces and Ottawa need to work together to improve mental-health care, long-term care and primary care, such access as family doctors – all of which will help keep patients out of ERs and in their communities, she said.
“We need to give hope to nurses, to doctors, to the other health-care workers that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. We will fix this and you just need to stick around.”
Dr. Katharine Smart, president of the Canadian Medical Association (CMA), says she hopes the premiers will collectively acknowledge the crisis in the health-care system and commit to working collaboratively with the federal government to find tangible solutions.
“The problems that we’re seeing are very similar across the country and I think there’s a real opportunity here for people to pull together and try to solve some of those fundamental issues within our health-care system,” Smart said.
Physicians are hoping premiers will look at possibly redesigning primary care, which Smart says is an outdated model that’s not working. Nearly five million Canadians do not have access to a family doctor, according to the latest data from Statistics Canada.
Burnout of medical staff is also a huge issue that needs to be tackled, as are ways of recruiting new providers to help alleviate staffing pressures, Smart said.
One idea to address this would be to create of a pan-Canadian licensing program for physicians and other health-care workers to make it possible to mobilize the workforce to where it’s needed most, she added.
Like Silas, Smart hopes the premiers will look beyond simply asking Ottawa for more blanket funding for health care and instead look for solutions to the pressing challenges facing the system.
“Dollars alone are not going to fix this problem and if we just continue to put money into a system that’s fundamentally flawed, we are not going to see the outcomes that Canadians deserve,” she said.
“We need to also hear from them how they’re going to address these variety of challenges in the system and actually work with health-care providers around solutions so that we don’t just get more dollars going into something that’s broken, but rather we get a re-imagining and a reinvigorating of the health-care system so that it actually functions well.”
Meanwhile, those on the front lines of Canada’s health-care “crisis” hope something – anything – significant comes from the premiers’ meetings next week.
At CHEO, a pediatric hospital and research centre in Ottawa, health workers have seen the largest influx of patients through May and June in the history of the organization, said Alex Munter, president and CEO.
And it’s not showing any signs of slowing down.
“We are seeing enormous pressure in the emergency department and many of our inpatient units, particularly the inpatient medicine units, are routinely at or above capacity,” Munter said.
At the same time, hundreds of positions are vacant – there simply aren’t enough health professionals to do the work, he said.
“So that’s the burning platform that we’re facing,” Munter said.
“We really do need an all-hands-on-deck focus from all levels of government to make sure that Canada’s health system remains an asset and reliable and is there for Canadians.”