‘This is a crisis’: Head of medical association warns that the health-care system faces ‘collapse’

The new Canadian Medical Association (CMA) president said Wednesday he fears the country’s fragile health care system will continue to deteriorate without a cash injection — and a plan to increase the number of doctors and other health professionals.

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dr Alika Lafontaine, an anesthetist in Grande Prairie, Alta., and the group’s first Indigenous president, told CBC News that Canada’s health care system is in a “grim” emergency and the quality of care is severely limited in some parts of the country.

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He pointed to recent emergency room closures in Ottawa, Southwest Ontario, Quebec and elsewhere, as well as staggering emergency room wait times in major cities like Toronto and Montreal, as horrifying precedents that undercut Canada’s long-standing promise of timely access to care for all who need it, subvert.

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“We’ve been saying for some time that we’re worried about a collapse. And in some places the collapse has already happened,” said Lafontaine.

A man in a suit and patterned tie stands in front of a building, smiling.
dr Alika Lafontaine, the new President of the Canadian Medical Association (CMA), was born and raised in Saskatchewan’s Treaty 4 territory. (Submitted by the Canadian Medical Association)

“All of these things are not normal for Canadians, so we’re at a critical juncture right now. If you don’t have access to services, it literally means a meltdown.”

The doctors on the front line are at a breaking point and have been for almost two and a half years, he said.

“We are all trained to deal with sharpness. We are all trained to deal with critical situations. But what is happening now is far beyond anything we have experienced before,” said Lafontaine.

Lafontaine’s comments came after the CMA released a new report on Thursday warning that all provincial and territorial systems are grappling with similar problems — particularly staffing.

The problem is essentially one of human resources, he said, with insufficient doctors and nurses available to staff existing facilities, let alone care for a growing population.

One of Lafontaine’s proposed solutions is the introduction of what he calls “national licensing,” which would allow doctors to operate across the country with less regulatory burdens.

This type of portability would give doctors more flexibility to practice where they are needed most. In addition, foreign-trained doctors could find it easier to move around the country.

He said the current system – in which each province has its own licensing system – is an obstacle.

A national health care “staffing plan”.

A national physician license could provide a single, streamlined process for verifying the qualifications of internationally trained physicians, he said.

“We need to reconsider the idea that we can go ahead with 13 separate healthcare systems that don’t really work deeply with each other,” he said.

He said the federal government must call a meeting with provincial and territorial governments to develop some sort of “healthcare workforce plan” to address staffing shortages and other pressing issues.

Aside from playing a sort of coordinating role, Lafontaine said Ottawa should also pump more money into the system.

“We definitely need more resources in the system to move forward. But what matters is where those resources go,” he said, adding that previous federal efforts to specifically allocate money to mental health or home care for the elderly have been successful.

Federal Health Secretary Jean-Yves Duclos has suggested more money will flow into provincial coffers in the coming months – but he has said it will not be a blank check.

Duclos has already outlined Ottawa’s top five priorities for new healthcare spending: ending underperformance, increasing the number of healthcare workers, improved access to primary care, a better system of long-term care and home care for the elderly, more resources for mental health Health and Substance Abuse and a renewed push to digitize health data and enable more virtual care.

The problem of the cumbersome licensing of foreign-trained doctors has recently come to a head in several provinces.

Last month, Ontario Health Minister Sylvia Jones directed provincial regulators to develop plans to speed up the enrollment of internationally trained doctors and nurses.

Other provinces, including Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador, are working to streamline their procedures as they welcome Ukrainian doctors fleeing the war in their country.

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