The New Brunswick Health Council has published the results of a survey on accessing primary care in the province that confirm what many in health care already knew: the system is stretched thin.
According to the 2022 survey, only one in three New Brunswick residents who have a primary care provider could get in to see them within a five day period last year.
Council CEO Stéphane Robichaud said accessing primary care continues to be a challenge and there are many factors contributing to the trend going in the wrong direction.
“There's a higher proportion of people right now that feel a bit overwhelmed when it comes to navigating the system. So that does speak to an uncoordinated, not properly organized resource in how it tries to meet the needs of citizens,” said Robichaud.
The survey states almost 51 per cent of people could get an appointment with their care provider within a five day period back in 2020.
However, that number shrunk to thirty-four per cent last year.
“It's a significant drop. It's worrisome and I think it speaks to the fact that we're adding options, practice options for these physicians, but no one is really keeping an eye on what's the impact on time spent in their own practices,” said Robichaud.
Nearly two-thirds of the population that have a family doctor reported using other services like after hours clinics, pharmacists and the emergency department because their health care provider was not available.
“But the resource itself is staying the same. So what that means is time is being taken away from their own family practice to operate in these other settings,” said Robichaud.
In a statement to CTV News, New Brunswick Medical Society [NBMS] President Dr. Michèle Michaud said the survey confirms what physicians are often hearing from patients – access to primary health care services in a timely manner is a struggle.
“The fact that access has become more challenging over the past few years is not surprising, and can be attributed to a variety of factors,” said Michaud.
One of those factors is burnout, which was made worse during the pandemic when many family physicians were asked to help cover gaps in the health system.
That left them with less time for their own practice.
“The resulting burnout led some healthcare providers to scale back their practice or leave the profession entirely,” said Michaud. “Family physicians also deal with increasing amounts of paperwork and other administrative activities that take away from the time they are able to devote to seeing patients.”
The NBMS also said New Brunswick’s older population is contributing to the challenges faced in primary care.
“Our population is one of the fastest aging, most chronically ill in the country, meaning patient health issues are more complex and time-consuming to treat, which results in longer office visits that leave physicians unable to see as many patients,” said Michaud.
Expanding collaborative care models and bringing more family physicians to the province, and keeping them here, are key strategies according to Michaud.
Robichaud said it’s not a simple fix.
“We need to address who is accountable at the end of the day,” said Robichaud. “In 2018, the council made a recommendation that regional health authorities should be made accountable for primary care.”
Dawna Melanson recently hurt her knee, but hasn’t been able to get an appointment with her family doctor.
She was told to call Telecare and she received the number for a couple of walk-in clinics.
Melanson said it’s been a struggle for her to access care.
“I would say all around for all New Brunswickers, since COVID everything is harder to get things done. It's harder to get in to see a doctor, it's a longer wait,” Melanson said.
“Overall, it must be hard for new people coming into New Brunswick to get health care.”
That's exactly what Laura Corazza is experiencing upon moving back to the province from Italy. She’s having a hard time accessing primary health care, but said she’s fortunate people have been very helpful in giving her a hand in trying to search for a doctor.
“So far, I've come up empty handed. There's so much demand and the waiting lists are extremely long and very few doctors,” Corazza said.