Canada’s health-care system ‘on the ropes,’ warns N.S. premier amid ER deaths

Click to play video: 'Trudeau’s support needed as health care ‘on the ropes’: Nova Scotia premier'
Trudeau’s support needed as health care ‘on the ropes’: Nova Scotia premier
WATCH ABOVE: Trudeau’s support needed as health care ‘on the ropes,’ Nova Scotia premier says – Jan 15, 2023

Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston is warning that Canada’s health-care system is “on the ropes.”

“There’s no community in this country where the headline story is not about something in the health-care system. Our Medicare system across the country is on the ropes,” he told Global News’ David Akin in an interview aired on The West Block.

“I believe in the public system, and I think that we can work together as provinces with the federal government to salvage our system of Medicare.”

Houston’s comments come on the heels of devastating recent weeks for two Nova Scotia families.

After waiting seven hours in Nova Scotia emergency room on Dec. 30, Charlene Snow went home. She decided she would try an outpatient clinic in the morning, her family has said. Before the night was out, however, she died.

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At first, her family was devastated. Then they got angry — and that anger turned into action.

As hospital overcrowding causes eye-watering emergency room wait times, Charlene’s daughter-in-law, Katherine Snow, decided she “didn’t want (Charlene) to be another statistic.” So she launched a website titled Nova Scotia Healthcare Crisis, which she hopes will encourage Nova Scotians with similar experiences to share their stories.

Just one day after Charlene Snow’s death, 37-year-old Allison Holthoff died at the Cumberland Regional Health Care Centre emergency department — after waiting for seven hours in excruciating pain, according to her husband.

There were 558 emergency room deaths recorded in Nova Scotia last year and now, Nova Scotia’s NDP are calling for an inquiry.

Click to play video: 'Another Nova Scotia woman dies after 7-hour ER wait, family says'
Another Nova Scotia woman dies after 7-hour ER wait, family says

Houston says he takes it “very personally” when someone is lost in “tragic situations” like the ones that have made headlines recently, he said.

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“I carry that very heavily, very heavily, on a deeply personal level,” he said.

Still, he said, there are people working day in and day out in these hospitals who are “saving lives.”

“They just can’t save them all,” Houston said. “Emergency rooms are of that nature.”

Why is this happening?

Health-care workers on the front-lines of the crisis are also sounding the alarm.

“Our acute care facilities, which is where we work, don’t seem to have enough capacity to manage all of the acute care that’s coming into our hospitals,” said the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians’ Dr. Michael Howlett, speaking in a West Block interview with Global News’ David Akin.

“The emergency department crowding is the number one issue.”

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The health-care crisis isn’t specific to Nova Scotia, Howlett added.

“The problems that we’re facing are actually national and international in scope,” he said.

“We have large numbers of patients who are admitted to hospital, who can’t get out of the emergency department and into inpatient beds, and that creates a backlog.”

Click to play video: 'Nova Scotia health advocate wonders ‘when is the breaking point’ after ER death'
Nova Scotia health advocate wonders ‘when is the breaking point’ after ER death

Wait times ballooned in Ontario last year, where data released by Health Quality Ontario (HQO), part of Ontario Health, showed patients waited an average of 20.7 hours to be admitted to the hospital from the emergency room in July.

A B.C. children’s hospital had to release guidance on when to bring your child to the emergency department, due to spiking wait times.

Hospital emergency rooms across the country — from Vancouver Island to Newfoundland and Labrador — had to temporarily close their doors this summer.

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Part of the problem is a lack of community care, according to Howlett’s West Block co-panelist Dr. Alika Lafontaine of the Canadian Medical Association.

There was a time, according to Lafontaine, when Canadians would visit a family physician or a walk-in clinic before resorting to an emergency room visit. But now, he said, “all of these places are completely overwhelmed.”

“So people really only have the option of going to the emergency room.”

Meanwhile, the health-care workers on the front-lines of this crisis are burning out, the doctors said.

“The workload is too great … we’ve seen this mass exodus,” Howlett said.

The fact that health-care is a provincial responsibility, Lafontaine added, means there’s a patchwork of health systems across Canada, each competing with one another to recruit the best employees.

“We have a competitive model versus a collaborative model,” he said. “We really have 13 health-care systems that are working in isolation for the most part, unless they choose to overlap.”

What can be done about this?

Overcrowding in the emergency departments is the biggest issue health-care is facing, Howlett said — but there just aren’t enough workers to help everyone who needs it.

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“We have many more patients being taken care of by too few caregivers,” he said.

Provinces and territories should work together, Lafontaine said, rather than competing against one another to attract health workers to their hospitals.

That way, “not only can we track problems, we can also track the needs of patients and match those things in a more reasonable way.”

Click to play video: 'Nova Scotia NDP calling for inquiry into ER deaths'
Nova Scotia NDP calling for inquiry into ER deaths

Many provinces made cuts to their health-care systems that decreased their capacity, Lafontaine said, because they didn’t collect or share data about the country-wide ramifications of these choices.

“We did not know — because we did not have the data, we were not collecting or sharing it — just how dire the situation would be right now,” he said.

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“So now that we’re in this situation, what’s the solution? It’s collaboration across the country.”

Canada also needs to step up its community care options, Howlett added, as this would allow emergency room beds to open up sooner.

People in acute care “languish for weeks and months,” he said, despite no longer requiring emergency treatment. That’s because there aren’t enough resources in the community to bridge that health-care gap.

“We haven’t planned well enough over the last 20, 30 years to make sure that these people can get out of hospital,” he said.

“In any given day, 10 to 25 per cent of hospital beds are taken up by people who don’t need acute care.”

To help take some pressure off of the problem, Houston said he’s “absolutely” open to allowing some privatized health services in the province.

Privatization of health-care, however, has proven a controversial topic in Canada, with opponents warning it would create inequalities, cost more and compromise quality of care.

“If there is somebody that can provide the care, then let’s get that care provided,” Houston said.

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Meanwhile, after riding health-care promises into office during the provincial election a year ago, Houston said his government has released an Action for Health plan, which is updated online with the latest efforts to solve the issue.

But, Houston said, fixing the system is going to “take money” and “take time.”

“The status of the health-care system today is something that’s developed over years, decades, really. We’ve been on this crash course for a long time. So it would take time to fix it,” he explained.

“We are completely focused on fixing this health-care situation and our resolve is stronger now than it ever was. We know that there’s a lot of pressure, but we know we can get there too.”

— with files from Global News’ Karla Renić

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