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Maritimers face extended wait times for specialist appointments

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Calling it “a really long time coming,” Doctors Nova Scotia president and family physician Dr. Leisha Hawker says there has definitely been a rise in wait times when it comes to getting her patients in to see a specialist.

In fact, she says data from 1993 shows it only took two months, a vastly different reality than what’s being seen today.

“Right now a lot of our very complex patients who need to see a specialist or a surgeon are waiting much, much longer than that and unfortunately, they’re having more negative outcomes because of the delay,” said Hawker.

In terms of more negative outcomes, she talks about inability to work and contribute to the economy, difficulties taking care of children or grandparents and other impacts beyond health care.

Grouped with an aging population, an already backlogged system and the challenge to bring doctors to the Maritimes, she said it could get worse if something isn’t done quickly.

“About a quarter of our family doctors are over the age of 60 and 23 per cent of our specialists are over 60. So, we could see significant retirements in the next five to 10 years,” she said.

However, things are currently being done to try and alleviate the problem, including new ways to bring doctors together with programs like Virtual Hallway, a electronic medical platform that allows family doctors to access specialists through an e-consult pilot program.

“I actually did a consult with a gastrologist this morning using Virtual Hallway for one of my patients,” she said. “So, they have a very, very long wait time and I was able to have a five to 10 minute conversation with him this morning and get the advice I needed and I’m going to see the patient again in two weeks.”

She says there is also a trial of central triage for surgeons starting soon across Nova Scotia that will serve as a central referral system helping to connect patients willing to travel with available surgeons in the area.

A study from The Fraser Institute, an independent public policy think-tank, noted that Atlantic Canada has the longest wait times in Canada. Examining the amount of time patients waiting from original referral to specialist consultation to actually receiving treatment has jumped in the last year alone.

In Prince Edward Island, the study showed patients waited an average of 41.6 weeks in 2021, jumping up to 64.7 weeks in 2022. For Nova Scotia, patients were waiting about 53.2 weeks last year and this year, they were waiting 58.2 weeks. For New Brunswick, the jump went from 41.5 weeks in 2021 to 43.3 weeks this year.

However, the study stated “the number of surgery responses in parts of Atlantic Canada are notably lower, which may result in reported median wait times being higher or lower than those actually experienced.”

However, even with the small sample, officials recognize that it is a problem.

PEI Health said it’s in the process of rebuilding the system and building a foundation of health human resources.

In a statement to CTV News, it said, in part “we need to invest in opportunities to make providing services more efficient for the staff we already have. This includes moving forward with electronic consult programs which have good evidence that they can help with wait times; a centralized referral, triage and booking system; and, of course, recruitment and retention of clinical staff and administrative staff to do this work.”

PEI Health also addressed the fact that patient flow within hospitals needs to improve.

Meantime in New Brunswick, steps are also being taken.

“The cataract surgery up in Bathurst, which will free up more, which will reduce the wait line and the wait time for cataract surgery, plus free up the space within the hospital for hip and knee replacements,” said New Brunswick Health Minister Bruce Fitch on Thursday.

He also said that many New Brunswick doctors have stepped up to do additional hip and knee replacements on weekends.

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