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Greater use of technology is key as New Brunswick releases 5-year health plan


By Kevin Bissett

FREDERICTON — The New Brunswick government released a plan to overhaul its health-care system Wednesday with targets of reduced wait times and better use of technology, but no estimate of what the changes will cost.

The priorities include reducing surgical wait times by 50 per cent and wait times for adult high-priority addiction and mental health services by 40 per cent.

A chief focus is use of technology for such things as virtual appointments and self-scheduling for diagnostic tests like blood work and X-rays. Health Minister Dorothy Shephard said much of the current system is outdated, noting that laboratory technicians have to rely on fax machines to transfer information.

“We will explore many new ways to incorporate technology in our health system over the next two years,” Shephard told reporters during a virtual news conference Wednesday.

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Other initiatives in the five-year plan include restoring the use of emergency medical technicians by Ambulance New Brunswick to ensure more ambulances are fully staffed and the use of “multi-patient vehicles” for non-emergency transfers within the province. Shephard said it was too soon to be able to say what kind of vehicles would be used.

She also couldn’t put a price tag on the new plan. “Those numbers are still being worked out. I cannot tie an actual figure to all of this, because some of it is still in development,” she said.

The minister did say the budget for health care will have to increase. “Health care cannot go down. I don’t ever see that happening,” she said. “We have 24 months to implement our top priorities.”

But Liberal Opposition member Jean-Claude D’Amours said he sees too many unanswered questions and is concerned with the reliance on technology.

“We have not yet solved the problem of having the entire province with high-speed internet,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “There are a lot of people who don’t have a device. There’s a lot of people who don’t know how to work with all those devices. In the future it will be their responsibility to book themselves for blood tests or X-rays.”

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Earlier this week, the Progressive Conservative government announced plans to increase services to older adults living in their homes and to help people who have no family doctor gain access to primary care.

People’s Alliance Leader Kris Austin said the new plan contains commendable objectives, but he wonders how wait times can be reduced when the province is facing a shortage of doctors and nurses.

“Unless you have surgical teams, addictions specialists and mental health-care experts in place, how will this be achieved?” Austin asked in a statement Wednesday.

He said improving care for the province’s aging seniors will also take more staff. “The key to whether this plan is successful, as I see it, is achievable recruitment and retention strategies,” Austin said.

Dr. Mark MacMillan, president of the New Brunswick Medical Society, said recruitment and retention of doctors will take time, but the new health plan is an important first step.

He said improving access to primary care, addiction services and mental health care are all things physicians have been asking for, and they are encouraged by the plan.

“When you encourage physicians like ourselves, we’re the best recruiters of other physicians,” he said in an interview. “If we’re saying this is a great plan, come join us, that is going to be a great recruitment tool for the province.”

Shephard defused some of the concern about the new plan earlier this week when she released a letter saying it would involve no hospital or emergency room closures.

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