Doctors in Newfoundland and Labrador say the province may have won the battle against COVID-19, but it is rapidly losing the war against health-care wait times.
In particular, Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association president Dr. Charlene Fitzgerald and others dispute Health Minister Dr. John Haggie’s assurance to the NLMA that services are expected to be back to 85 per cent capacity of pre-COVID-19 levels by July 6.
“Thus far, public statements about reopening services have been vague generalities,” Fitzgerald told reporters in a video briefing Monday.
She said the association was not even aware of the new goal until it approached the minister with its own analysis of capacity around the province.
That report, gathered by the association’s section heads and covering the period from June 20-22, painted a grim portrait of health service levels. In some cases, capacity was as low as 20 or 30 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. On average, services only appear to be back to no more than 50 per cent.
“Our members tell us that medical services will not return to pre-COVID levels for some time,” Fitzgerald said. “Many parts of the health system remain significantly below capacity and will likely remain that way for many months.”
A number of specialists echoed their own frustrations during the video briefing. They said the Department of Health has communicated no clear plan, either privately or publicly, to address a massive backlog of surgeries and other medical procedures.
And two of them emphasized that now is the only time to tackle the problem.
“If there is to be a second COVID wave, it is certainly not here now,” said Dr. Paul Jonnston, a urologist in St. John’s.
“The time is now to open up OR time and let surgeons catch up as best as they can, until such time as a second wave arrives.”
Dr. Jerry McGrath agreed.
“I’m not suggesting by any means that we get to 100 per cent, because I think in a COVID environment that’s not safe,” the St. John’s gastroenterologist said, “but we certainly do have an opportunity here to get some work done because the reality is that we are in a pandemic, and that COVID will eventually get back to Newfoundland and then we’re probably going to have to scale things back again.”
McGrath said he’s also afraid there will be a burst of patients who have been delaying getting help during the pandemic. He said he has already had one patient who avoided going to hospital despite serious bowel symptoms.
While urgent procedures are still taking place, some of the specialists said Monday the wait times for those who keep getting put off could extend anywhere from several months to a year into the future.
That doesn’t even count new referrals.
Can't plan ahead
Dr. Karolyn Dobbin, head of surgery at the James Paton Memorial Hospital in Gander, says guidelines for reopening services tend to arrive after a given alert level is reached, leaving no time to plan.
She says a 14-bed COVID-19 ward at the hospital is still protected from use by other departments, many of which are forced to share an orthopedic ward. Admissions are only a fraction of their usual levels.
“I feel that we’ve been adrift at sea without a captain, floating around, waiting for a path to follow,” Dobbin said.
Fitzgerald said something has to change.
“Doctors are ready,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re ready to accelerate the volume of patient services now.”
Too many patients are going undiagnosed and untreated, she said.
“This results in preventable suffering for patients and will lead to an increased strain on our health-care system.”
Fitzgerald said the department needs to inform the public of specific progress made, as some other provinces have done.
When contacted Monday, a Department of Health spokeswoman confirmed in a statement that the minister met with the NLMA last week and revealed the 85 per cent capacity goal.
However, the minister offered no reaction to Monday’s pleas, saying only that it’s up to regional health authorities to achieve the goal.
“The department has asked the NLMA to keep them informed should they encounter barriers,” the statement said.
Peter Jackson is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter covering health for The Telegram.