Nfld. & Labrador

Doctors pressure N.L. gov't to deal with health-care backlog, as patients lose faith

The Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association is calling on the minister of health for a second time in just over a week, to release a plan to deal with long wait lists of patients across the province.

NLMA president says capacity further reduced as health authorities move to summer schedule

The Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association says the province's health system isn't operating at 85 per cent capacity, like the health minister promised. (CBC)

For the second time in just over a week, the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association is calling on the province's health minister to release a plan to deal with the backlog in the healthcare system, as patients echo the doctor's frustrations.

NLMA president Dr. Charlene Fitzgerald said doctors want a plan from the province, by specialty, to deal with the long wait list of patients.

She said Health Minister John Haggie told them the system would be operating at 85 per cent capacity as of Monday.

But Fitzgerald said they're not even close. 

"Orthopedic surgery is operating at 50 to 60 per cent in Eastern [Health]. Neurosurgery is operating at 60 to 70 per cent," she said during a news conference Tuesday afternoon. 

What's worse, she said, is that many of the province's health authorities are moving into a summer slowdown schedule, which means capacity will be further reduced to about 65 per cent of pre-COVID-19 levels. 

She says she believes the health system will remain well below Haggie's 85 per cent target until at least September.

Dr. Charlene Fitzgerald, head of the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association, says a lack of transparency is affecting everyone. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

The health-care system would have to operate at more than 100 per cent capacity to reduce the backlog of patients, she said, and until then wait lists will grow longer.

In the meantime, Fitzgerald sees another problem brewing.

"I think the most pressing deficiency is the relationships." she said.

Fitzgerald said doctors found out the health system was increasing its capacity two weeks in advance. She said there's little information sharing between the health department, the health authorities, doctors and patients.

I have no faith in the system whatsoever.- Sandra Troke

"This lack of transparency is affecting everyone," she said.

"Every day in this shutdown, physicians and patients are scrambling to find out what's happening today, how do I get this done, how do I advocate for my patient, where should they go?" said Fitzgerald.

Patients suffering

Sandra Troke of Clarenville is one of those patients who have been trying to navigate the backed-up health-care system.

She needs a hip replacement to deal with torn cartilage in her hip. The surgery was promised in 2019, but hasn't happened. 

Her joint assessment appointments in March, needed prior to her surgery being scheduled, were cancelled due to COVID-19.

The limbo is affecting her everyday life.

"I'm not working. I can't do any of the activities that I enjoy like hiking or walking."

Sandra Troke has been waiting a year for a hip replacement and says she can't enjoy things like walking, hiking and running. (CBC)

Troke said she's had a hard time getting information about when her surgery will be, calling the doctor's office multiple times to try and get answers.

"I have no faith in the system, whatsoever," she said.

The longer she waits, the worse her hip gets. The situation is also affecting her mental health, something she said she has never struggled with before.

"I feel like you're only a number, and I get full of anxiety and I've been depressed," she told CBC.

No shows rampant

 Troke isn't alone, according to the NLMA, and many patients are getting sicker as they wait.

Cardiologist Fred Paulin said constraints in waiting rooms means he and other doctors can see fewer patients in clinics.

 Many patients, fearing COVID-19, aren't showing up to appointments, he said, slowing things down even more.

"I had, last week, about 50 per cent no show rates in my clinic," said Dr. Paulin.

Meanwhile, Tony Wakeham, opposition MHA and the former head of Labrador-Grenfell Health, said it's time for the government to release a plan and communicate with doctors and their patients.

"This is not going to happen overnight. It's going to take a series of weeks, and god forbid months, to get back to normal."

"It's time for the minister of health to pick up the phone, call the president of the NLMA, and sit down, yes, physically distance, but sit down and work this out," said Wakeham.

Haggie wasn't available for an interview to respond to the doctor's concerns.

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