New Brunswick

Primary health care will be available to all New Brunswickers next year, minister says

The Higgs government says it plans to make primary care available to all New Brunswickers in early 2022 by transforming an online registry of people without doctors into a referral system.

New referral system will be the first of its kind in Canada, with 375 appointments a week, says Shephard

Health Minister Dorothy Shephard says the new system will allow 'timely access' to care for patients without family doctors or who are experiencing long waits for care. (Kate Letterick/CBC )

The provincial government says it will make primary care available to all New Brunswickers in early 2022 by transforming an online registry of people without doctors into a referral system.

Health Minister Dorothy Shephard says the system will be the first of its kind in Canada, allowing people to call in to arrange in-person or virtual appointments with doctors and nurse practitioners. 

"This becomes about how do we make it easy, how do we make it convenient, not just for our physicians but for our patients," she said at an announcement in Moncton.

The program is the first element of the new health plan that Blaine Higgs's government is unveiling in bits and pieces at several news conferences around the province this week.

The program will eventually expand to include more services, allowing people to arrange to see pharmacists and mental health professionals, among others.

Dr. Darren Martin of Moncton will be a part of the program, which he says will relieve pressure on hospital emergency departments. (Kate Letterick/CBC )

Someone who doesn't have a doctor, or even someone who can't get in to see their doctor for weeks, will be able to call the system and quickly be connected to someone for an assessment and referral.

"It'll be timely access," she said. 

Dr. Darren Martin, a family physician in Moncton who will be part of the new program, said giving more people access to primary care will relieve pressure on the hospital emergency departments people often resort to as their only choice.

Patients won't always see the same doctor ,but an electronic-medical-record system will ensure "seamless" care, he said.

"Like with any new project, there's a number of complexities to refine, but I remain confident that this initiative will serve as an access point for our health-care system, delivering timely access to quality care."

The program represents Shephard's second commitment to give everyone access to primary care. 

One deadline missed

In April, the minister told CBC News that her goal was "to give every New Brunswicker a primary caregiver" within six months.

She missed the October deadline she gave herself but said at the time that the new health plan would address it.

There are now almost 40,000 people on the Patient Connect NB waiting list. 

Shephard said she's confident this new system will work because "we got the commitments to be able to go forward with this."

She said 350 doctor visits a week were needed for the system to work, and the New Brunswick Medical Society came up with 375, thanks to doctors who are "willing to give up some of their time … to put toward these appointments." 

Medavie Health Services New Brunswick, which now runs the provincial extramural and ambulance services, will operate the referral system. 

Ambulance New Brunswick and Extra Mural Program CEO Richard Losier spoke at the announcement in Moncton on Monday. (Kate Letterick/CBC)

Shephard plans announcements about other elements of the new health plan later this week.

In an open letter Monday morning, she said the broader plan will not involve any hospital closures or emergency department closures, and "there will be no second-tier system for rural New Brunswickers."

That contrasts with the health reforms announced by the Progressive Conservative government in February 2020, which included the nighttime closures of emergency services in six small hospitals. The changes were withdrawn within a week after an immediate storm of protests.

"Our intent is that we have 24-hour emergency care in all of those hospital units," Shephard said Monday.

The government is also putting some of the decision-making around the new plan at a distance from itself.

Independent task force will keep watch

A new task force will "help guide the objectives" in the plan, Shephard said in a separate news release on Sunday.

Co-chaired by former deputy minister of health Gérald Richard and Suzanne Johnston, the former president of Niagara Health in Ontario, the new entity will operate independently of the government and make recommendations to the health and social development ministers.

"This isn't just another layer of bureaucracy," Shephard said Monday. 

She said the task force will "funnel" decisions into the system more quickly, similar to the COVID-19 task force that co-ordinated all elements of the health-care system during the early phase of the pandemic. 

"We need to have similar standards, the same standards," she said. "We need to have that total collaboration."