'We're on catch-up': Health minister outlines plans for fixing the system

The health minister in Newfoundland and Labrador promises to fix the health-care system. But John Haggie says it won't happen overnight.

Dr. John Haggie promising to improve access to care

Paramedics say they can play a much bigger role in the province's health-care system, reducing trips to emergency departments. (CBC)

Dr. John Haggie is blunt about the state of the health-care system in Newfoundland and Labrador.

"It's not as good as it can be," Newfoundland and Labrador's health minister told the St. John's Morning Show. "We'll fix it. It's not going to be instant."

We'll fix it. It's not going to be instant.- John Haggie

The minister was responding to concerns raised during CBC's Critical Condition series, which culminated in a public forum Thursday.

Haggie said plans to reform the system are underway. 

"I think you have to accept that we've had a system that really had no significant transformative effort made for maybe a decade," said Haggie, "and we're on catch–up."

Long ER wait times

During the series, CBC invited members of the public to share their experiences with the health-care system, and any ideas for improving it. Dozens of people emailed

Long waits in hospital emergency rooms were a common thread. 

On that point, Haggie said, "I think the issues around access — particularly for seniors — in emergency departments need to be looked at a different way."

Dr. John Haggie says the provincial health-care system is 'on catch-up.' (Paula Gale/CBC )

The minister said community paramedicine pilot projects are about to begin on both the west coast of the island and in Central Newfoundland.

It's an approach the Paramedic Association of Newfoundland and Labrador has been pushing for. 

Haggie said advanced-care paramedics could respond when, for example, seniors or residents of personal-care homes have emergencies, and then treat the patients on the spot without taking them to emergency rooms. 

Haggie said figures from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick suggest that 40 per cent of ambulance calls are handled without taking the patient to an emergency department. 

The aim of the pilot projects is to see if there would be similar results in this province. 

On reducing wait times

Wait times to see specialists are a frustrating issue for many of the people who emailed

People described waiting more than two years for neurology appointments or to get in to see an ophthalmologist and get a date for cataract surgery. 

Deborah Griffiths, who lives in the Dunville area of Placentia, expects to wait a total of four years to see an orthopedic back specialist for pain related to spinal stenosis and other conditions. (CBC )

Those suffering from suspected cases of inflammatory arthritis can expect to wait 18 months before they can see a rheumatologist, even though their referral letters say they have an urgent need to see the specialist. 

And data from the Canadian Institute for Health Information shows that in 2017, one in three people in Newfoundland and Labrador needing a knee replacement had to wait longer than the benchmark of six months. 

The health minister maintained that once patients actually get in to see specialists, the wait times for treatment here match or exceed those in the rest of Canada.

"The problem is that the vast majority of specialists run private businesses in private offices," said Haggie. "We, as a health-care system, don't have any visibility into that." 

He said his department is trying to figure out how to make improvements. 

Access to psychiatrists

Several people who emailed complained of wait times of a year or more to see psychiatrists. 

On that point, Haggie said patients tend to be referred automatically to a psychiatrist when in fact they may be waiting for the wrong intervention. 

It's not quite as bad as everyone would make out.-John Haggie 

The minister said taking a second look at referral letters and directing patients elsewhere when appropriate has reduced wait times for counselling in Burin to zero.

Eastern Health says seven full-time staff based in Marystown provide mental health and addictions support to the Burin Peninsula. (CBC)

In Corner Brook, he said, those numbers went from 192 people waiting in March 2017, compared with 19 a year later. 

"It's not quite as bad as everyone would make out," Haggie said, adding he wasn't trying to downplay the difficulties for those people who are waiting long periods for help.