On the fourth and final day of premier Tim Houston’s health care tour of Nova Scotia, he announced an expansion of the province’s virtual care program, and renewed his pledge to knock off each item from the hefty Progressive Conservative health care platform promise list. “Today we’re moving forward with one of our campaign initiatives, which is that every unattached Nova Scotian will have access to virtual care,” Houston said in a press conference outside the QEII Hospital Thursday afternoon.
“Virtual care is not for everything, but it certainly can play an important role in the delivery of health care. Particularly to those that are unattached and have nowhere else to turn at the moment.” Houston said access to virtual care for all 75,000 Nova Scotians awaiting primary care is expected in December.
“It’s not as quick as I want, but it’ll be here relatively quick,” Houston said. The province’s current virtual care program has 11 primary care providers, eight of whom are physicians. The province is in the process of on-boarding a group of 30 new registered nurses and doctors for the soon-to-be-expanded program. This group of 41 health care professionals will provide virtual care for patients all across Nova Scotia by December.
The province spent $3.8 million to launch the original virtual care pilot, which served the Northern and Western health zones. Expanding the program for the Central and Eastern zones until March, the end of the fiscal year, will cost an additional $1.3 million. It is Houston's hope that improving access to primary care will positively impact the health system as a whole.
Houston’s health care tour
Houston stopped at hospitals in Sydney, Truro, Bridgewater and Halifax from Sep 20-23 to discuss local needs and concerns with frontline health care workers. The premier was joined by health minister Michelle Thompson; Kevin Orrell, the CEO of the newly formed office of health care professional recruitment; and Karen Oldfield, the interim CEO of the Nova Scotia Health Authority. Houston said doctors told him they felt like they were “drowning” working in Nova Scotia’s health system.
“I’m hearing a lot of concern about patient care from providers, that’s number one on their minds. But the overriding thing is they feel overwhelmed,” he said.
“I think they’ve reached a point where they want to speak frankly, they want to know that change is coming. My commitment to them remains strong, even stronger now than in the campaign.”
Houston won the August election campaigning on health care. His massive health care plan includes $430 million in spending over his first year, which is expected to shorten surgery wait times, improve access to primary care and mental health care, and ease the pressures on emergency departments—some of which have to close on a rolling basis. The PCs also pledged to add 2,500 new long-term care beds over three years and create a pension plan for doctors.
“This is no time to rest on any of these issues, we’re pushing hard,” Houston said. Over the four-day tour there were about 16 roundtable discussions that Houston said were “very well attended” by frontline health care workers.
“This tour was pretty intense and this intensity will continue. We’ve heard a lot of good suggestions,” he said. The premier said his commitment to health care professionals is that he’ll present short-term, medium-term and long-term plans to addressing a number of concerns.
“Over the next few weeks I would be so bold as to say we’ll see some of those short-term action items take place,” he said.
When it comes to extending Nova Scotia’s mask mandate, the premier said he’s open to that and would support a “modified” Phase 5 of COVID reopening if chief medical officer of health Robert Strang suggested it.
“We’ll be guided by Doctor Strang. The cases we’re having, the loss of a Nova Scotian today, these are of great concern to me.
“If [Strang] suggests that we move to a kind of a modified Phase 5 where masking remains, he’ll have our support if that’s his suggestion.”