National medical organizations call on premiers to focus on health care reform

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The Council of the Federation is set to meet July 10-12 in Winnipeg. When they do, the continuing crisis facing health care systems across the country must be at the top of the agenda, said Alika Lafontaine, president of the Canadian Medical Association.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Physician and nurse advocacy groups from across the country are issuing an urgent call for premiers to make health reform a top priority when they meet next month, as patients struggle to get timely access to care and many hospitals are overwhelmed because of staffing shortages.

A letter published Monday by the Canadian Medical Association and co-signed by 12 other organizations, including the Canadian Nurses Association and the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, is calling on the provinces to take immediate action to deal with a national health care crisis where millions of Canadians are without access to primary care, wait times in emergency rooms are ballooning, surgical backlogs are growing, and workers are exhausted and burned out.

“The need for change has never been greater,” the news release states.

The Council of the Federation, which includes the 13 premiers from each province and territory, is set to meet July 10-12 in Winnipeg.

When it does, the continuing crisis facing health care systems across the country must be at the top of the agenda, said Alika Lafontaine, president of the Canadian Medical Association.

“We really are at a critical point,” Dr. Lafontaine said in an interview.

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For example, last month, physicians in BC and Alberta wrote open letters calling attention to the state of crisis unfolding in hospitals, warning that patient care was deteriorating as a result of critical staffing shortages and other problems.

Dr. Lafontaine said that stress and strain is evident throughout the system.

“We’re going to see overwhelming in emergency rooms where primary care isn’t available. We’re going to see backlogs in hospitals when emergency rooms are overwhelmed. Surgical capacity is going to get shut down as hospital capacity starts to drop,” he said. “All these problems are connected.”

Earlier this year, the provinces and territories reached a much-touted funding agreement with the federal government that will see an additional $46.2-billion spent on health care in the next decade.

Now, dr. Lafontaine said provinces and territories have to commit to ensuring those funds are directed to areas that need it most.

“In health care, we have discussions about what needs to happen. We make commitments on what needs to happen and then it doesn’t happen.”

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Sylvain Brousseau, president of the Canadian Nurses Association, said in an interview the nursing shortage is a critical issue facing the system and that premiers need to focus on retention in order to address the issue. While it’s important to bring new nurses into the profession, much more needs to be done to address the problems that prompt many to leave the profession, including substandard pay, overwork and violence on the job, he said.

“Nurses want to work in a healthy environment,” Mr. Brousseau said. “Enough is enough.”

He also wants the premiers to address health work force data gaps. The current lack of data means it’s difficult to say how many more health workers are needed or where some of the most critical gaps exist.

The provincial-territorial-federal funding agreement reached earlier this year stipulated that better national health data collection is needed.

Mr. Brousseau said there’s a long way to go, and that more robust data can help provinces and territories do better short-term and long-term planning for how to properly staff the system.