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Touchy topic of health care leads to passionate debate at Digby Municipal Council meeting

Digby General Hospital.
Digby General Hospital. - Mark Goudge

DIGBY, N.S. – The touchy topic of health care delivered the most passionate exchange of words at Digby municipal council on Jan. 22.

The conversation centred around a letter dated Jan. 17 from the Town of Shelburne, in co-operation with the Nova Scotia Health Coalition, inviting Digby council and interested parties to participate in a discussion around the “rural Nova Scotia health-care crisis” during the week of Feb. 12-16.

Similar to recurring issues in the Digby region, the letter said:

“Deepening the health crisis, in 2017 the Roseway Hospital Emergency Room (outpatients) was closed more than 70 times, leaving Shelburne residents without dependable access to emergency care. Compounding this, family doctor shortages leave many rural residents reliant on outpatients for basic medical care. This situation is not acceptable and we know that other residents of rural Nova Scotia are facing similar conditions or worse.”

The discussion that ensued was led by Warden Jimmy MacAlpine, who immediately said he did not feel that participation in the conversation was warranted or, possibly, even wise.

“I believe that we’ve been making pretty good progress working with the health authority,” MacAlpine said, adding that he felt the last six months had delivered improvements – the dialysis unit that’s slated for Digby General Hospital, the new doctors, the two young medical students he met over the holidays who are looking favourably at Digby for practice. “The health authority changed direction and is now looking for a doctor for Weymouth… and they’re working on finding a couple of nurse practitioners for the Islands, and they have a new recruiter who is working on bringing new health-care professionals to this area,” MacApline said.

District 4 Councillor David Tudor immediately jumped in.

“That’s all excellent – good news – but I don’t see how that would preclude us from working with other partners with regard to the many, many issues that remain,” Tudor said. “I’ve always thought one of the reasons the health authority gets away with what they get away with over the years is the lack of us working together and I would like to see…”

MacAlpine jumped back in.

“Right now we have a positive relationship working with the health authority,” he said.

Tudor was not convinced.

“But how would this not make it a positive relationship – how would working with others who are all concerned?” Tudor asked.

MacAlpine was firm.

“I don’t see the need for us to do this right now – if we weren’t having any progress with the province on trying to attract doctors for here, then I could see it, but right now I feel like we’re moving in the right direction.”

Tudor was also insistent.

“We do have some progress, but I don’t see how working with others would impact that progress,” he said. “I don’t want you to defend the health authority, I just want to go to this meeting.”

MacAlpine tried one more time. “We have to have a positive mindset on moving forward.”

But Tudor kept asking: “What makes you think this group would not have a positive meeting?”

MacAlpine responded: “I don’t know if they would or not, but I’ve heard…”

Which is when Deputy Warden Linda Gregory jumped into the discussion.

“I spoke to Mayor Karen Mattatall at the conference last week and what they’re trying to do as a group is to see how we can benefit,” Gregory said. “It’s not a bashing to me. I agree with Councillor Tudor that I don’t think listening to people or attending this meeting would not be a good thing.”

Tudor added: “Or have a negative impact.”

Gregory agreed. “Yes or have a negative impact. She (Mattatall) was telling me about this and I said she should send a letter over and we’d see from there – she said they were already in the process of doing that.”

At this point, Coun. Matthew Ross waded into the conversation.

“I don’t see a problem with it,” Ross said. “I also think there’s a lot of positives with this, but I also think maybe those should be brought out in the Courier – the positives, because people don’t know.” He said he’d read an article that he felt contained a lot of negativity about the local health-care system, but that he’d also not heard of anyone who’d been taken off the provincial 811 list of those looking for a family doctor.

“I’ve been asked in the last couple of weeks if anybody had a phone call from 811… nobody has heard from 811,” Ross said. “We have these two new doctors and nobody has come to me saying they’ve got a phone call.”

Ross agreed with MacAlpine that there have been some positives.

“I do see the positives but it doesn’t hurt to keep going, like I said about the 811 number – everybody asked me and nobody’s got a phone call,” Ross said. “It’s very frustrating and a lot of people are upset.”

Tudor jumped back in: “I like the idea that we keep the pressure on if for nothing else than to just pound the idea that at the very least they need to communicate better. I think all of these sorts of groups, it’s important that we join with them because we do have real problems.”

Tudor then moved a motion that council take part in the health-care symposium being hosted by the Town of Shelburne. His motion was seconded by Gregory and received support from all councillors, but the conversation wasn’t over.

“I really want to stay positive – we’re making some positive steps forward,” MacAlpine said. “But I agree 100 per cent with what you said about communication – communication is key – and people have got to know that the good stories can come out and people must keep abreast of the stuff that’s taking place.”

Gregory said she recognized that there had been some improvements, but understood the continued frustrations.

“ERs aren’t set up to practise family medicine and family medicine is coming in the door and those doctors they’re there to assess you quick and get you gone,” Gregory said. “But you’re coming in and saying ‘I need my blood pressure pills because I don’t have a doctor’, they’ve got to figure that out – it’s a circle because you’re not being looked after.”

Ross said he was expecting a more immediate result from the 811 system, and Gregory agreed that she has also not heard of anyone who has been taken off the provincial wait list.

The conversation came almost full-circle, just before MacAlpine announced it was time to move on, with Tudor saying: “I hope when people get together that the health board doesn’t see that as a negative thing – that it’s something positive,” Tudor said. “That tends to be more what I was thinking.”

THE SHELBURNE MEETING

No specific meeting date or time has been scheduled at this time, but anyone interested in participating in the conversation can respond to Shelburne town clerk Julie Ferguson by phone at 902-875-2991, ext. 8 or by email: cleark@town.shelburne.ns.ca. The letter from the Town of Shelburne also says they are prepared to tailor the location and timing of the conversation, including the option of teleconferencing and videoconferencing – “to support participation from all interested parties.”

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