Interview with Saskatchewan Health Minister Don McMorris

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This month, The Canadian Business Journal had the exciting opportunity to chat with Saskatchewan’s Minister of Health Don McMorris, discussing a variety of front burner healthcare issues. McMorris, sworn in as Saskatchewan’s Minister of Health on November 21, 2007, is mandated with accounting for Health Quality Control, the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency, the Saskatchewan Health Information Network and the Saskatchewan Health Resource Foundation.

CBJ: How did you determine what changes needed to be made after the government switch?

DM: Commissioner Tony Dagnone interviewed people throughout the province, starting with patients first. Healthcare providers were talked to, but we wanted to hear from the perspective of a patient, in terms of what was good about the system, what was poor about the system and what needed to change. The most prominent recommendation was the issue around accessibility and making sure they have timely surgical procedures. That’s why we set up a Saskatchewan surgical care initiative that would look at when we could guarantee people would have their surgery concluded. We set a very aggressive goal that, by 2014, nobody should wait longer than three months for surgery. We have quite a backlog within the system right now and we need to work to improve and reduce that. From the previous government, as is the case in most other provinces, we inherited some of the longest wait lists of anywhere in Canada and we did not feel that was acceptable in opposition and we do not think it is acceptable now that we are in government. That’s why we are taking steps to change it.

CBJ: What has been the public response to this announcement?

DM: I think it has been very positive because they at least know that they have been listened to and heard. There are always other issues in healthcare as well, not to say that there still are not issues on long-term care or physician recruitment into rural Saskatchewan, but a lot of people are happy to say that. When they are waiting a year-and-a-half for a hip and knee replacement that is just far too long and we need to do something about it. We’re starting to address the problem and within the first two-and-a-half years of our government, the numbers of waits have decreased. We have already made progress but there is still a lot more work to do.

CBJ: What is the focus right now?

DM: Right now the main focus is on the surgical care initiative. We just announced the introduction of a private deliverer within the public system. It’s a private surgery clinic that will help with some of the long waits in pediatric. We have introduced a third-party deliverer that will be within the public system, no queue jumping, no paying out of pocket, but it helps increase our capacity. Other initiatives we are involved in are improved physician recruitment, better cancer care, etc., but really the focus right now is on the wait times.

CBJ: What are the initiatives to get more people into medical school?

DM: We in Saskatchewan, for the longest time, had one of the smallest medical schools in all of Canada. Under the former government, they apparently didn’t see the need to increase the number of training seats. When we took office, we made a bold goal, but set numbers that we wanted to see, like 100 medical seats in Saskatchewan, 120 residency positions, and we are well on the way of meeting that goal by the next election. We are increasing the number of training of our own citizens and working hard to retain them once they have gone through medical school. We are also looking outside of our borders, nationally and internationally, to try to increase the recruitment efforts to bring more physicians into Saskatchewan because we are short there, as we did with nurses. When we took power, we were short of nurses so we set a goal of getting 800 more nurses to work in the system and we are at that goal three years into a four-year mandate and now we are turning our attention to physicians. We are quite confident we will see the same result.

CBJ: How are you working with industry to establish solutions to issues within the healthcare industry?

DM: One program we have introduced is Releasing Time to Care and it is conducted in a ward of a hospital where everyone who works on that floor has input in trying to make the stay more pleasant for the patient and, overall, more efficient. It has been very well received. There has been great buy in. On the private delivery front, Saskatchewan under the previous government was very hesitant to allow third-party delivery within a public system. Under our mandate, we have been able to look at opportunities to allow that. There is no private delivery of CT or MRI scans. We put up an RFP to work with private deliverables and industry. It will complement the public system and open it up.

CBJ: What are the necessary steps to avoid things like H1N1?

DM: Prevention is key. We just went through the H1N1 pandemic for the past two years. We take our lead from the professionals; the people in the medical community. We felt that the roll out in Saskatchewan was as efficient as any province. We didn’t have the long lineups because we were staging our population. If it was a high-risk group, that was all that showed up at the clinic. It is the same with any public health issue, in terms communicable diseases and healthcare professionals came up with solutions that we needed to agree to and decide what needed to be done in implementing it.

CBJ: What are your remote healthcare initiatives?

DM: In Saskatchewan, we have a large, geographic mass, with a small, dispersed population, so it’s always a challenge. It is also a challenge to ensure proper delivery of healthcare. We are working on it and trying to improve. For example, we have physicians that fly into communities. We have air ambulance if it is needed. We meet on a regular basis with the Food Safety Network and hear their concerns, definitely on reserve and we are looking at that. In Saskatoon, for example, we have something called a health bus. I am not aware of anywhere else in Canada that has one of these. What it does is every few days it stops at different neighbourhoods in the intercity and provides healthcare delivery out of a bus, as opposed to the person having to go to the hospital. Some people say we should have the bus on the road and go into other communities and maybe that is something we can look at in the future. Right now, it has been very effective. We have just started it within the last year-and-a-half to two years.

CBJ: How do electronic health records improve the Saskatchewan health system?

DM: The advancement of the EHR is definitely one of the things that Tony Dagnone and the Patient First Review identified. We questioned at times how often the public would say we would need the electronic health record. I have been surprised in the report in how many people wanted to see it move forward. We are working with the Saskatchewan Medical Association to make sure we have the proper resources for doctors to get more involved. Through the Ministry of Health, we are moving to have digital imagery online and laboratory results online.

The infrastructure deficit within our healthcare facilities is something that was inherited by our government. In the first year, we put $100 million into repairing the facilities that we have—a much needed injection to repairing roofs and replacing air conditioners and getting some of our facilities up to standard. We’ve also invested in our long-term care facilities, replacing 13 long-term care facilities within the province. We are one of two provinces that do not have a designated children’s hospital so we are putting $200 million toward that and hoping it is under construction in the next year or two.

CBJ: What are the investments in healthcare?

DM: It is the number one issue and all governments are wrestling with the increasing costs of healthcare. When you weigh that off against your budget, 43 per cent of our budget goes toward healthcare. We took an aggressive step this year in trying to match our healthcare spending to our GDP. We are actively trying to find efficiencies within the system. We also realize that sustainability of the current system is extremely important.

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