Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston says he’s “open to anything” to improve the province’s struggling health-care system.
Houston made the comments following a summit of health-care partners Tuesday, which included representatives from regulatory colleges, professional associations, education institutions, unions and service providers.
“Just to get all the people who have an impact on how health care’s managed in the province in the same room, so we can all talk about the same sense of urgency we feel,” he said during a media availability in the afternoon.
“Basically, my message to all the leaders here today was: go like hell. Just get going to get this fixed.”
The summit comes as Nova Scotia’s health-care system faces intense scrutiny following the recent deaths of two women in emergency rooms.
Allison Holthoff, 37, died after a seven-hour wait at the Cumberland Regional Health Centre emergency department in Amherst, N.S., on Dec. 31, 2022.
And on Dec. 30, 2022, 67-year-old Charlene Snow waited for seven hours at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital emergency department before giving up and going home. She died shortly afterward.
Houston said the summit had been in the works for a while, but recent events gave it a new sense of urgency.
He said human resources are part of the issue, “but what we’re looking for is things we can actually do to improve health care.”
“Today’s meeting was to talk about, of course, some short-term things, some medium-term, and also in the long-term – how do we make the right long-term decisions so that the health-care system is there for Nova Scotians?” he said.
“The reality is that people have been working very hard looking at a lot of initiatives. Today was just to move those forward.”
Houston said there were “two or three things” the province can do right away, but did not provide more details. He said there will be more information at a news conference Wednesday.
He said there was “very little” discussion about pay for health-care workers, instead focusing on how everyone around the table could be part of the solution.
“The discussion today wasn’t focused on money, it was focused on what we can do,” he said.
Working conditions for nurses
Janet Hazelton, president of the Nova Scotia Nurses’ Union, said the union will do whatever it can to help.
“Health care needs to get fixed and everybody there wants to do whatever it takes to fix it,” she said.
“We owe that to Nova Scotians. We owe people confidence when they enter our health system that they are going to get good care,” she said.
Hazelton said nurses in the province deserve more respect, noting that some are being “accosted in parking lots” and being asked to work 24-hour shifts.
“So what are we going to do to stop that?” she said.
“It’s one thing to say, ‘We respect what you’re doing.’ We need to start showing our members that we understand how hard they’re working, we respect (them) and we are going to find solutions.”
She said one issue is that some nurses are leaving their positions to work as travel nurses, who earn more money.
Hugh Gillis, 1st vice-president of the Nova Scotia Government Employees Union, which represents nurses at the Halifax Infirmary, said the issue of travel nurses is a “main concern.”
“They are working side-by-side by travel nurses, and the travel nurses are getting paid a great deal more money – in some cases, double – and so what does that do for morale?” he said.
However, he said pay is not the only issue. He said nurses struggle with “very, very challenging” working conditions that takes a “tough psychological toll on the nurses.
“It’s not only remuneration, it’s also working conditions,” he said.
The NSGEU recently sent a letter to the Nova Scotia government, characterizing the staffing situation at the Halifax Infirmary emergency department as a “revolving door” of junior and inexperienced employees.
The letter included a list of 59 suggestions from nurses and other staff to address areas including staffing levels, recruitment and retention, security and morale.
Gillis, who called Tuesday’s meeting “productive,” said the union has received confirmation the letter was received and is awaiting a response.
Nancy MacCready-Williams, the CEO of Doctors Nova Scotia, said the summit was a “first of its kind” meeting, which had “partners working together in a way that I’ve not seen before.”
She said recruitment and retention is an “incredibly important issue” and those at the summit were willing to work together to address it.
Plan light on details: Opposition
The Opposition parties, however, both said while it’s good that these issues are being discussed, the details of the government’s plan are still scant.
Claudia Chender, the leader of the NDP – which recently called on the province to conduct an inquiry into deaths in Nova Scotia’s emergency rooms – said they have been pushing for expanded collaborative care for “months and months.”
“The emergency department and the crisis that we’re seeing and now hearing about anecdotally is really the symptom of problems that have existed in the health-care system for years, and none of this should be new to the premier or to this group,”
“And so I find it a little bit disingenuous that we’re suddenly having a summit and announcements when these are all well-recognized issues.”
Liberal MLA Brendan Maguire said the media availability Tuesday was “short on details.”
“I want to see what the plan is,” he said, referencing Houston’s promise to fix the health-care system during the last provincial election. “This is a government that came in that said they had all the plans.”
— with files from The Canadian Press and Global News’ Karla Renic.