In a province where it’s estimated more than 44,000 people are without a family doctor, it’s no surprise that health care and virtual care emerged as important issues during the provincial election in New Brunswick.
Even before the election was called, New Brunswick was grappling with a shortage of primary care physicians and limited access to specialist services for rural patients.
In February 2020, the Conservative government led by Blaine Higgs proposed health care reforms that would’ve closed six emergency departments in rural parts of the province, part of a strategy intended to address the shortage of workers across the province’s health care system. Public health authorities advised against the closures and the proposed reforms were met with backlash from rural communities, other political parties and even within the premier’s own caucus. In the end, Premier Higgs put the emergency department closures on hold, but this controversy remained top of mind for many.
When the COVID-19 pandemic was declared one month later, virtual care quickly emerged as a means of safely continuing routine health care service delivery, by phone or through secure video chat software. Support for the service grew across party lines, and the New Brunswick government authorized physicians to conduct virtual visits for services such as follow-up appointments and prescription renewals.
Premier Higgs also expressed his support for virtual care, commenting to CBC News in April, “I hope that we’ll be able to continue what we’ve learned here and expand upon it. It would be a shame for us to move back from the innovation we’ve seen. I think that the future is e-health and it’s extremely important for us to be able to meet the demands that are facing our province.”
From the onset of the election, all five parties continually returned to virtual care conversations, making many promises about what New Brunswickers should expect if they were elected. As the candidates and leaders agreed throughout the campaign, the expansion of virtual care services has the potential to improve access for rural patients, seniors and those needing access to mental health and specialist services.
With the election over and the Progressive Conservatives under Premier Higgs forming a majority government, it’s critical that Health Advocates in New Brunswick hold both the government and opposition members to their promises so that access to health care in New Brunswick is not only protected — but improved upon.