“How many lives is it going to take?”
A Cape Breton doctor directed that pointed question at Premier Stephen McNeil this week in an effort to drive home the ongoing medical emergency in her part of the province. The premier’s response was dismissive.
Dr. Jeanne Ferguson said it’s hard to overstate the seriousness of the region’s health-care issues. “We don’t have the resources we need to safely care for patients in Cape Breton anymore.”
“We’re losing lives, and that’s the bottom line.”
But the desperate plea for help from the province was somehow drained of all urgency by the time it reached Halifax, where McNeil clearly felt that the doctor had succeeded in overstating the problem.
Thursday, McNeil characterized Dr. Ferguson’s comments as an “accusation,” adding that “inflammatory language doesn’t move the discussion along.”
He said the eastern zone — Cape Breton Island plus Antigonish and Guysborough counties — has the lowest percentage of people looking for a family doctor in the province — 2.8 per cent by the Nova Scotia Health Authority’s reckoning — and his government is planning to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on new health facilities in the old industrial heart of Cape Breton.
“I understand her frustration. Successive governments have ignored it (the condition of Cape Breton’s health facilities),” the premier concluded, as if realizing he better say something conciliatory after accusing a prominent Nova Scotia physician of crying “wolf.”
But Ferguson is by no means alone. Doctors, paramedics, other health professionals and patients in Cape Breton have been sounding the alarm, with increasing urgency, for years. And, they’re talking about conditions at the moment, while the province responds by pointing to building plans that are still in the formulative stages; years from completion.
Ferguson doesn’t know what it will take to get the message across to decision-makers in Halifax, but if the premier’s response is any indication, it will take more than doctors telling him that patients are dying because of inadequate health services.
The “inflammatory” remarks came after an NDP news conference in Sydney, called to protest the province’s plan for Cape Breton health facilities.
The plan involves closing community hospitals in North Sydney and New Waterford, expansions at the Cape Breton Regional and Glace Bay hospitals and adding long-term care beds in the communities that are losing hospitals. The closure of the two community hospitals has people in the region worried.
Margaret Fraser, president of the Cape Breton Medical Staff Association, didn’t mince words when she heard about the premier’s statements: “He’s wrong.”
Cape Breton has the oldest patient population in the province, so family doctors are dealing with elderly patients who have multiple complex and chronic conditions. In addition, many family doctors are carrying far heavier patient loads than the 1,300 recommended, so some patients wait up to six weeks for an appointment.
The NSHA’s numbers don’t accurately reflect how many people are without a family physician, because many have given up on ever finding one.
Both Fraser and Ferguson trace the genesis of the problems — not to previous governments, as did the two-term premier entering his sixth year on the job — but rather to the current government’s reorganization of the health bureaucracy into one big delivery system — the NSHA.
Ferguson said people were initially optimistic about the merger of nine health authorities into one and hoped for positive change. Instead, she said Cape Breton has lost and continues to lose resources.
The region has lost vascular surgery, can’t adequately staff its emergency rooms, lost two-thirds of its psychiatrists, is short in radiology and its family docs are swamped.
Doctors on the ground in the Cape Breton region say they’re working in near Third World conditions. The union that represents paramedics says the situation in the region has gone beyond a crisis and has reached “a breaking point.”
The provincial government, where those same doctors and paramedics are looking for help and support, believes they are exaggerating, that the conditions are not that bad.
With those dynamics at play, Ferguson is almost certainly right when she says: “We haven’t hit the bottom of the barrel yet. I’m not sure where the bottom is.”
It’s too bad, but it looks like Cape Breton will have to find that “bottom” before it can expect much help from the province.