Doctors, nurses say health-care funds should address staffing shortages, primary care

Groups representing nurses and doctors are welcoming the federal government's health-care funding proposal but say some of the increase must be used to bolster staffing and improve primary care in a system where there is accountability in how the cash is spent.

Linda Silas, president of the 200,000-member Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, said funding must be used to ease critical shortages across hospitals and nursing homes in order to have any real impact.

"Right now, our nurses are either leaving the workforce or going part-time, or are burning out because of the workload, the lack of flexibility and the too much overtime. That's not addressed,” she said Wednesday.

Janet Hazelton, president of the Nova Scotia Nurses’ Union, said the chronic shortage of nursing staff needs to be dealt with.

"We have nurses working 24-hour shifts, working short-staffed every single day they come to work … it's not manageable and nurses are getting hurt," Hazleton said.

Dr. Leisha Hawker, president of Doctors Nova Scotia, said improving the primary care clinic structure to focus on collaborative care will help attract new physicians to a province where 130,000 residents are without a family doctor.

"About 13 per cent of Nova Scotians don't have access to a family doctor — that's an all-time record high — so we really do need to focus on retention and recruitment of family doctors," she said.

"Even Nova Scotians right now who have a family doctor don't have timely access to their family doctor, which means our emergency departments are overburdened with non-emergent health issues."

Hawker said investment in the primary care system would alleviate some strain on emergency departments that are busy and short on beds.

The federal government has proposed a 10-year, $196-billion health spending plan, which adds $46.2 billion in new money to health care across Canada.

Provinces can also get $1.7 billion over five years to increase wages for personal support workers in long-term and home care.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said the government will be flexible in helping provinces meet their own circumstances. But provinces will have to show how the money will be spent and demonstrate progress in priority areas, he added.

Canadian Medical Association President Dr. Alika Lafontaine said he would like to see some of the money allocated toward primary care.

The first point of contact for most patients is through community-based primary care with physicians, nurses and pharmacists working together, he said.

"I think what exists right now is this siloed way of providing primary care where we are looking at physician-only models, or nurse practitioner-only models — working in our silos, and then occasionally crossing paths," he said.

"A true team-based model would allow a patient to come through several different doors and then the team working together to help them navigate towards what they need. I think that has the greatest chance of transforming the system for both providers and patients."

The new funding offer will "absolutely" help health care, said Paula Doucet, president of the New Brunswick Nurses Union.

"The major concern for us, and nurses across Canada, is the accountability and that (the money) actually goes into the public health-care system," she said.

"Accountability has to be attached to this money. This is Canadian taxpayer dollars. We need to make sure that it's earmarked for health care workers, our system, the delivery of care, long-term care, and everything that we have been talking about for many years."

Barbara Brookins, head of Prince Edward Island Nurses Union, said accountability is important to ensure the plans and added funding produce tangible results in the public health-care system.

"We want to ensure that every dollar that's being allotted to go into health is going to be used for health in a public system where there's universal access, and we're not talking about even one penny that's going to go toward any administration fees in a private company," she said.

Brookins said the nursing shortage is far more pronounced and magnified in a smaller place such as P.E.I.

New Brunswick Medical Society President Dr. Michèle Michaud called the increase in funding encouraging, adding priority must be given to modernizing health care.

"Reducing wait times for surgeries, testing and emergency care is another priority — this requires investments in staff and facilities."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 8, 2023.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Hina Alam and Lyndsay Armstrong, The Canadian Press