Liberal health critic Rob McKee says the provincial government needs to create more collaborative-care practices that would be more appealing to young family physicians. John Chilibeck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The stop-gap measure to help New Brunswickers without a family doctor is undergoing its final roll-out next week, three months behind schedule.

Eric Beaulieu, the deputy health minister, told the legislature’s standing committee on public accounts on Tuesday that 24,717 patients in the Saint John and Bathurst areas who remain on a waiting list will be able to sign up for NB Health Link, following other regions in the province where people registered in late 2022 and earlier this year.

The service provides clinics with a rotating staff of doctors who can see orphaned patients. It’s not a permanent solution, but meant to help people while they continue looking for a permanent family physician or nurse practitioner who can oversee their health care.

All told, 39,162 people belong to NB Health Link, however 7,055 of them are still waiting to be signed in to the clinics.

Beaulieu admitted to Liberal health critic Rob McKee that those statistics don’t capture everyone in New Brunswick without a family doctor. They only include those who put themselves on a wait list.

“It is safe to assume some people have not registered with Patient Connect,” the deputy minister said, referring to the waiting list the Progressive Conservative government has promised to make a thing of the past. “So it is safe to assume there are some New Brunswickers not on any list.”

The New Brunswick Health Council recently reported that only 85 per cent of the population has a primary care provider. Considering the province’s population has grown to 830,000 people, that would mean closer to 124,500 don’t have a family doctor.

It also says only about one-third of patients with a family doctor have timely access – that is, they can be seen within five days of asking for an appointment.

On both counts, the numbers have been getting worse. In 2020, when the council did its previous survey, 90 per cent of the population had a family doctor and among those who had one, half could see their family doctor within five days.

The survey is considered a gold standard, questioning more than 5,000 New Brunswickers from all regions.

McKee told reporters during a break he was concerned that the Tory government wasn’t providing clear answers on orphaned patients.

“It’s concerning that we aren’t moving more quickly toward introducing more collaborative-type of practices,” he said. “I know they talked about it in their strategy, but we need to see more New Brunswickers getting access in a quicker manner and moving more quickly to collaborative care.”

Former Tory health minister Dorothy Shephard said NB Health Link was unique in Canada, where the search for a family doctor has created a lot of anxiety.

Beaulieu agreed.

“As a model, I think other jurisdictions are looking at it because it is quite promising,” the deputy minister said. “And government in the last few months has taken quite a few actions in order to expand access to primary care to citizens.”

Those measures include making eVisitNB, or virtual care, widely available, opening up more community health clinics and allowing pharmacists to set up their own clinics and take on some tasks that normally family doctors would do, paid for by the government.

“There’s a lot of action happening there.”

The Opposition Liberals have been pushing for more collaborative-care practices where a team of health-care professionals could work together to help patients, easing the burden on family doctors. New Brunswick, however, remains old-fashioned in that more than half of doctors still run their own practices with their own patient rosters. Only two out of every 10 work in group practices where patients are shared.

Even as New Brunswick links more patients to more doctors, it is caught in a vicious circle: the population continues to grow and the family doctors, on average, are trimming back their work.

Beaulieu said the Fredericton area in particular has been the greatest challenge, where the roll-out of NB Health Link was slow.

“We have new citizens arriving in New Brunswick at the same time that we have physicians reaching the retirement age and are either slowing down or leaving practice.”

The department has a target of recruiting 120 physicians this year, but based on past years, it won’t be easy to hit. For the fiscal year the committee was examining, 2021-2022, the province successfully recruited 45 doctors, but lost 17, for a net gain of 28.

“We’ve seen an increase since then, in terms of the number of physicians recruited, and we will also see a corresponding increase in the number of physicians leaving, simply because of age,” Beaulieu said.

McKee wasn’t convinced the recruitment drive would work.

“It’s ambitious because all the provinces are competing for the same pool of doctors,” the Liberal Moncton Centre MLA said. “So we need to work in the direction of these permanent-home, collaborative care practices that can alleviate some of the pressure on the general practitioner.”

By John Chilibeck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Sep 06, 2023 at 05:50

This item reprinted with permission from   The Daily Gleaner   Fredericton, New Brunswick

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