Window of opportunity for feds to address healthcare deficits

Headlines across Canada and around the world continue to be filled with news of shutdowns, widespread economic chaos and the race to vaccinate.  Where we once defaulted to small talk about the weather, conversation has turned to daily case counts, ICU beds and vaccination statistics.  Health has become a national obsession, with all signs suggesting it will remain so until the pandemic fades into memory.

That’s why now is the right time to talk about – and invest in – the future of Canada’s healthcare system.

For many years, investing in healthcare was a matter of boosting federal transfers to the provinces.  Not terribly exciting in terms of advancing national policies or programs but, rather, a way to buy short-term peace within the federation.  The COVID-19 pandemic has opened the door to something more.

Lessons from the pandemic point to two structural issues that are well within the federal government’s capacity to address:  Canada’s system of long-term care and challenges within the healthcare talent pipeline.  The current environment opens a window to fresh policy action and a renewed federal/provincial partnership on healthcare.

First, the pandemic has laid bare the fault lines in Canada’s long-term care system.  Staffing was inadequate to meet the needs of seniors in care when family access was restricted.  By all accounts, personal protective equipment was insufficient and the need for it poorly understood.  As a result, those with compromised immune systems and pre-existing health conditions – the very group long-term care is designed to support – died at alarming rates.

With a Canadian population that is living longer, eldercare is a reality with which the federal government must grapple.  Now is the time to activate and empower the Minister of Seniors to set national standards of care and employee training for senior living facilities.  These actions would be appropriate and well-timed, not to mention welcomed by countless families who were denied the ability to visit, advocate for or support their loved ones over the past year.

If there were a federal will, there is no shortage of capacity.  Polytechnic institutions, for example, have dedicated applied research expertise in eldercare and healthy aging.  They are also the foremost education providers for a workforce that is well-trained and certified, rather than ad hoc and under-prepared.

Applied research stands to be an important part of the development and implementation of national standards.  At Conestoga’s Canadian Institute for Seniors Care, projects are designed to improve practices and models, develop and evaluate new products, and enhance the overall quality of care.  A recent project explored the use and impact of a device that provides real-time feedback on hand hygiene in long-term care, promoting hand hygiene and reducing transmission of COVID-19.  Research findings could be used to help inform, monitor and improve best practices and standards.

While a number of the issues surrounding eldercare relate to training standards, the government needs to think bigger.  Frontline workers across all health fields have been pushed to their limit for more than a year, with each subsequent wave of the pandemic accompanied by a host of new challenges.

Part of the solution lies in a much greater emphasis on professional development and upskilling.  While the same can be said across sectors, the healthcare field is a critical case in point.  At Polytechnics Canada, we are hearing about micro-credentials to activate a vaccination workforce and upskilling for critical care nurses.  Investments in upskilling and reskilling must be viewed as much a health issue as a workforce training priority.  It isn’t enough for the courses to exist – Canadian workers need to be encouraged, supported and navigated to high-quality continuing education.

Another important way to support the current healthcare system is to enable the efficient entry of new graduates.

While late-stage students in many vital health fields made an accelerated entry into the healthcare workforce last spring, the learners behind them have struggled to find the practicums and placements critical to earning their professional designations.  Work-integrated learning opportunities didn’t dry up for lack of work, but because of an overwhelmed system without the resources to offer hands-on experience to students.

Polytechnic institutions found creative ways to continue hands-on and applied learning in a largely remote environment, but investments in post-secondary digital infrastructure – simulators, augmented and virtual reality, high-tech labs and smart classrooms – will go a long way to ensuring new entrants are work-ready in high demand fields.  In addition to providing teaching and learning solutions in the time of a pandemic, such investments lay the groundwork for a future that includes digital and remote healthcare.

While most Canadians will be grateful when the pandemic is over and behind us, we shouldn’t lose sight of the opportunities to address deficiencies identified in the last year.  Without a doubt, one of the most important is a reimagined federal/provincial partnership for the health and welfare of Canadians.

About the Author

Sarah Watts-Rynard, Chief Executive Officer, Polytechnics Canada

Sarah Watts-Rynard joined Polytechnics Canada as Chief Executive Officer in July 2018. Her background is in marketing communications, advocacy and non-profit management, including eight years focused on the important role tradespeople play in the Canadian economy. Sarah is Vice-Chair of the Canadian Centre for Women in Science, Engineering, Trades and Technology (WinSETT Centre) and sits on the Boards of the CWB Welding Foundation and the Canadian Club of Ottawa.