B.C. unveils strategy for improving strained health-care system, including promised medical school
The B.C. government has announced dozens of measures designed to address critical staffing issues in the province's health-care system, which include expanding the roles of pharmacists and paramedics.
Health Minister Adrian Dix and Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Training Anne Kang unveiled the 70-point strategy on Thursday, following months of growing concerns from doctors, nurses and other medical professionals.
"I acknowledge the strain and pressures health-care workers have been working under over the past three years," Dix said.
"We intend to work together with every aspect of the health-care system – and with patients – to develop solutions that will make a career in health-care a more sustainable and rewarding opportunity for people."
Some of the ongoing issues are not unique to B.C., officials said, pointing to a World Health Organization forecast predicting a global shortage of 15 million health-care workers by 2030.
"We expect by 2032, demand for health-care services go up by 14 per cent in B.C.," said Dix.
One way the province intends to improve staffing long-term is by adding 128 seats at the University of British Columbia's Faculty of Medicine.
"This means we will see more doctors graduating from the program, and that is very good news for people in every corner of British Columbia," Kang said.
Officials said 40 undergraduate seats and 40 family medicine residency positions will be added in fall 2023, and another 48 residency positions will be phased in by fall 2028.
"We know from our experience that where students train, they're more likely to put down roots and stay and practice in the same B.C. communities," said Dr. Dermot Kelleher, dean of the faculty.
The government is also providing $1.5 million to help Simon Fraser University's efforts to launch a second medical school in the province – something Dix promised during the 2020 election campaign, when he said the first graduating class would begin in 2023.
Officials did not provide an estimated opening timeline Friday. Kang said the provincial funding is being used to make a business case for the school.
To alleviate some of the current pressure on clinics and hospitals, officials said they are "expanding the scope" of some existing health-care professionals. Beginning in spring 2023, pharmacists will be allowed to issue a limited number of prescriptions, including contraception and medications for allergies, indigestion, urinary tract infections and acne – removing the need for those patients to see a doctor in a clinic or hospital.
The B.C. Pharmacy Association expressed support for the changes.
In some cases, pharmacists will also be able to renew prescriptions for people with chronic conditions, but only for patients who have lost access to their family doctor.
"In those situations where a pharmacist is concerned about renewing a prescription for a patient, the pharmacist will be able to seek advice on behalf of the patients from a prescriber," Dix said. "We will have medical staff on hand to support this system."
A number of doctors made the decision to retire early during the COVID-19 pandemic, some citing unsustainable working conditions and issues with the province's billing system. Officials said their talks with Doctors of B.C. to develop a new compensation model for family doctors are ongoing.
In addition, paramedics will be tasked with "providing expanded life support and pain management procedures," while other first responders will be trained to help prepare patients to eventually be taken away in an ambulance.
It's unclear whether there will be any increase in pay for those new responsibilities. Officials said only that new training would be provided.
Some of the province's 70 measures will be focused on retaining existing staff, with health and wellness supports and increased efforts to protect them from violence in the workplace, which were not specified Thursday.
"All of this, I think, is a positive expansion in the access to care for patients in B.C.," Dix said. "It's not focused on barriers, it's focused on team-based care."
The province is also working to address systemic anti-Indigenous racism in health-care – as flagged during a damning report two years ago – by recruiting Indigenous workers to senior positions and supporting Indigenous students in health programs.
Officials said they are working to recruit new workers from outside the province as well, and helping to ensure internationally trained health professionals can work in their field.
The opposition BC Liberals told CTV News the announcement is long overdue.
"This was promised over a year ago now,” said finance critic Peter Milobar. “To finally have it today is a little cold comfort to those people who’ve been waiting over a year now, watching health-care crumble.”
GROWING CALLS FOR HELP
Staffing problems in a variety of medical fields have led to troubling wait times in B.C., despite the government's hiring of some 38,000 health workers over the last five years.
Last week, hundreds of specialist doctors signed a letter to Dix claiming there are one million patients waiting to see them, including some whose prognoses are worsening in the meantime.
B.C. radiologists have also warned there could be a "tsunami of cancer cases" if delays in medical imaging aren't addressed. Dr. Paula Gordon told CTV News most of the patients she saw last week for breast biopsies had waited around 12 weeks, something she called "unacceptable."
"It's really unbearable for some women to wait any length of time, but months?" she said Friday.
On Wednesday, Dix appeared at a COVID-19 news conference with provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, where they noted the government is preparing for a possible fall surge in coronavirus and flu cases that could put more pressure on the health-care system.
"Our hospitals are extraordinarily challenged," Dix told reporters. "Service reductions, including postponing non-urgent scheduled surgeries, could be required."
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