It’s been one year since Nova Scotians voted in a majority Progressive Conservative government after the party ran on a platform to fix health care.
“Getting Nova Scotians access to health care is what this campaign is all about,” Houston told reports on the campaign trail last August.
But a year later, many say access is worse.
In 2021, Middleton resident Katrina Kellough shared her story of challenges accessing emergency care in rural Nova Scotia, after she went to Soldiers Memorial Hospital only to find out the ER was closed. The ambulance bay across the street was also empty, leaving her in a panic.
Kellough ran into a similar issue this summer when she went into anaphylactic shock. Soldiers Memorial was once again closed so she called 911 for an ambulance to take her to the next closest hospital — about 45 minutes away.
“I was waiting an hour and a half for my ambulance to get to me.”
The only difference between now and last year is that her local hospital has reduced its scheduled ER hours; now its emergency room is open just six hours a day, from 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. It means patients won’t turn up and find it closed, but Kellough says a reduction in hours doesn’t actually help those in an emergency.
“You can’t get sick on a schedule,” she said.
Soldiers Memorial is not the only hospital reducing its hours. Across the province, more hospitals are reducing ER service, with some closed for days at a time.
Health Minister Michelle Thompson says they’ve increased scheduled closures this summer to give health-care staff a break.
“We hear from health-care workers they’re really tired and so, wherever possible, we gave folks time to rest this summer,” she said.
“We did implement planned closures so communities and health-care workers could anticipate when their facilities would be open locally.”
Opposition parties say health-care system is worse off
A year after the election, NDP MLA and health critic Susan Leblanc says by all metrics, the health-care system is in a worse position than it was a year ago.
“We’ve seen steady increases on the Need a Family Practice wait-list, we’ve seen steady increases in surgery backlog and wait-lists, we know more people are going to the ER and then leaving without being seen,” she said.
As of July 1 last year, there were 69,070 Nova Scotians on the Need a Family Practice Registry, representing about seven per cent of the province’s population. This July that number surpassed 100,000 for the first time, sitting at 100,592 people, representing 10 per cent of the population.
Leblanc said she understands that fixing health care takes time, but she said there is more the province can be doing now to immediately improve access, including improving the rollout of virtual care.
“A third of the people who are on the Need a Family Practice list have signed up for virtual care, but what we’re hearing is that people don’t even know they’re invited to virtual care because they get an email that goes to their spam folder,” said Leblanc.
“Figure out a way to call people on the wait-list.”
Liberal Leader Zach Churchill said that while health care has had its challenges for years, the new government has made decisions that have made things worse.
“They have not managed to see the link between the pandemic and health-care outcomes,” said Churchill.
“They ran a ‘get back out there’ campaign during the beginning of the Omicron wave, which contributed, I believe, to bringing us from the safest place in the country to the deadliest, literally, and that also overran our health-care system.”
Churchill said it’s obvious the commitments the PC Party made in its platform last year weren’t credible.
“They promised 24/7 surgeries. That’s impossible to do,” he said.
“They promised universal mental health-care coverage; we haven’t seen any movement towards achieving that.”
Government says health care is a work-in-progress
Health Minister Thompson said it’s been a busy first year and that she’s pleased with how things have gone.
“I think that there have been a lot of accomplishments,” she said.
“We’ve had a record number year for attracting physicians, we’ve increased seats in the nursing programs… We looked at gender-affirming care and improving wait times for surgeries.”
In the last fiscal year, from April 1, 2021 to Mar. 31, 2022, Nova Scotia saw 163 physicians begin working. Seventy-five are in family medicine, while 88 are in other specialties. During the same period, 74 physicians departed.
So far this year, between April 1 and June 30, the province has recruited 21 physicians, however, 24 physicians have departed, the majority being due to retirement.
The health minister said while there’s still much more to do, their momentum is gaining.
“I’m really pleased we have Action for Healthcare. That plan is the first one in well over a decade,” she said.
In June, the province launched a website to track health-care progress, which included the government’s Action for Health plan that was released in April. While the plan outlines six key solutions, opposition parties say it lacks any real meaning.
“I think the plan is not actually a plan, it’s a bunch of talking points that doesn’t have any specifics. It’s very sparse,” said Leblanc.
“It doesn’t have any benchmarks, it doesn’t have any real plan, like a checklist of things to do.”
Liberal Leader Churchill said he doesn’t believe the government has any plan for health care.
“They’ve abandoned all their promises and we’re seeing the system deteriorate pretty drastically and quickly under their leadership,” he said.
Health-care systems facing challenges everywhere
Dalhousie political scientist Katherine Fierlbeck researches health-care politics and health-care governance. She says based on data, it’s obvious things have become worse in Nova Scotia in recent years, but she says what is less clear is how much politics has played a role the past year.
“We don’t really know what is the extent to which the policies enacted by the new Tory government when they came into power about a year ago really have any bearing on these numbers, or whether these trends would have been largely the same regardless of which party was at the helm,” she said.
While the list of those needing a family doctor has grown, it’s not a recent phenomenon, and both the COVID-19 pandemic and recent population increase have put more pressure on it.
“So many GPs have delayed retirement because of the need for medical personnel during COVID, and now that the immediate threat of COVID has receded … it’s a reasonable time for these people to move ahead with retirement.”
As for staffing shortages in hospitals, Fierlbeck said that’s an issue being seen all around the world and no one province can fix it in isolation.
“In a way, it would be like expecting Nova Scotia to fix inflation without considering that an entire world is dealing with inflation.”
Fierlbeck noted that while challenges in health care have been building for years, health care itself has changed a lot since Medicare was first set up in the 1950s.
“The good news in all of this, I suppose, is that we can do more. We have more treatments, we have more sophisticated systems, we have the technology,” she said.
“The practice of medicine is now quite different from what it was… There’s more you can offer (patients) and you want to monitor them for the treatment that you are giving them, because there’s so many options. But at the same time, that means that the interface between doctors and patients is substantially more than it would have been decades ago.”
Minister Thompson said fixing health care will require a complete transformation of the system and that’s something her party is working on.
“The mandate that’s put in front of us is not one year, that mandate that’s put in front of us it’s four years and all of those things can’t be done at once and there are things we can do now that will influence future successes.”
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