To build back a better health system, start at the frontline

Now is the winter of our discontent. As the cold and flu season threatens to send our country back into dreaded lockdowns, concern for patients and the wellbeing of frontline health workers should drive government discourse, not political posturing.

Now is the time for our nation to target ways that we can help those health workers on the frontline. If we don’t look after our caregivers, how can we expect them to care for our patients and families? In its opening section, the Speech from the Throne laid out the challenge well:

“This is our generation’s crossroads. Do we move Canada forward, or let people be left behind? Do we come out of this stronger, or paper over the cracks that the crisis has exposed? This is the time to remember who we are as Canadians. This is the opportunity to contain the global crisis and build back better, together.”
– 2020 Speech from the Throne

Sadly, it is patients and those who provide the care, clean the health care institutions, and work in laboratories determining who has COVID-19 and who does not that are the ones paying the price for the cracks in our system . As you may have heard, Canada doesn’t have enough of any of these frontline healthcare champions. They are working flat out, many to the point of exhaustion.

In British Columbia, health authorities are scrambling to hire an additional 600 people to conduct contract tracing with those who have tested positive for COVID-19 in the province. Prior to arrival of COVID-19 in BC in March the province had less than 60 individuals tracking infectious disease outbreaks.

In Newfoundland and Labrador – where recruiting and retaining adequate numbers of physicians, nurses and other health care personnel is always a challenge – exhausted staff continue to try and work through the backlog of procedures even though they are short 200 nurses.

In Quebec, the Federation interprofessionnelle de la santé du Quebec, a union representing 76,000 nurses, nursing assistants, respiratory therapists and clinical perfusionists report that 1,700 workers have left their positions since March 1st due to the toll the COVID-19 battle has taken on them.

In Ontario, one registered practical nurse working in long-term care described how the stress related to practicing during the COVID-19 pandemic led her to throw herself into her work – where she was desperately needed –  at the expense of her own wellbeing

These harrowing tales should not be a reality in a country that is as prosperous as Canada. Yet here we are. But federal, provincial and territorial leaders have an opportunity now to show true leadership. This comes at a critical time when all Canadians are looking to them for solutions that address capacity issues, staffing shortages, and unpredictable funding. Addressing these barriers will reduce the burden placed on Canada’s frontline health workers, and provide much-needed stability, security and support so that they can continue delivering the high-quality care that Canadians deserve.

With that in mind, the federal government should also urgently examine the idea of instituting a special personal income tax break for frontline employees to recognize the hardships they have endured this year on our behalf. This could be in the form of a refundable credit or other measure that demonstrate Canada’s gratitude to those who have done so much under such difficult circumstances.

Winter is coming, and as hospital capacity reaches its limits, we all need to do our part. We need to wear a mask and physically distance. Our nation’s leaders need to work together to build a better health system for all Canadians.

Paul-Emile Cloutier, President and CEO