Deaths, gaps in First Nations care illustrate need for more autonomy in health care: grand chief

A patient went to a nursing station with jaundice and in respiratory distress, was sent by air ambulance to a regional health centre, waited 3.5 hours to see a doctor then died after another transfer to a tertiary care hospital.

Health-care system 'doesn't meet the needs of a lot of Northern Manitoba First Nations': Sheila North

Manitoba Health has released its list of critical incidents so far this year

A patient went to a federal nursing station with jaundice and in respiratory distress, was sent by air ambulance to a regional health centre, waited 3½ hours to see a doctor, then died after another transfer to a tertiary care hospital less than 24 hours later.

A premature infant was given 10 times the ordered dose of IV morphine, had to stay longer on mechanical ventilation and may have suffered long-term damage.

Another patient lived for 14 years with mouth cancer before being diagnosed, despite a pathology report that should have led to a diagnosis right away, resulting in a more extensive surgery.

Those are a few of the recently posted critical incidents reported to Manitoba Health in the first three months of 2017 — including four deaths and 12 major incidents requiring reviews — all of which went to the minister of health.

Sheila North, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, says the first example — the story of the man who died after being transported from a federal nursing station — is particularly troubling.

"It is a terrible situation. At this day and age, with a health-care system that we brag about as a country, it doesn't meet the needs of a lot of Northern Manitoba First Nations, at no fault of their own," she said.

North says despite the fact that nurses and nurse practitioners in communities "do their best," a lack of resources, doctors and diagnoses means people are sicker by the time they actually make it out of their communities for treatment.

"It's a really sad state of affairs when people in this country can't get the simple basics of good health care and diagnosis earlier than they do," she said, adding there's widespread frustration among people in Northern communities that their complaints won't be taken seriously or missed altogether.

"By the time they see a doctor for diagnosis, and then it becomes an end-of-life situation," she said.

More autonomy for health care sought

She says members of MKO are seeking more autonomy over health, systems and community-based solutions to address some of the disparities that exist for First Nations and hope to eventually sign a memorandum of understanding between the province and federal government.

"We're moving forward to come up with a health transformation that will be servicing the Indigenous people directly but also be accountable to the First Nations themselves and we're working with the federal government and we're trying to work with the provincial government," said North.

She says many of the communities in Manitoba have their own solutions to addressing the health gaps, including the integration of a Telehealth system that would allow for virtual meetings, diagnostics and assessments between patients and care teams, or even more frequent use of the hospital in Churchill, as opposed to those in Winnipeg, for Dene people in Northern Manitoba.

The time to find solutions is now, she says, before people get even sicker.

"It's really critically important. We can't keep going forward with the way things have been for First Nations communities and health. Not at this day and age."