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Gaps in seniors care affect head of B.C. docs association personally

The need for better seniors care got far too personal recently for the president of Doctors of BC.

Dr. Charles Webb spoke in Vancouver on Sept. 28 at a roundtable discussion and a subsequent town hall meeting. Both events were jointly organized by the British Columbia Retired Teachers’ Association, the Canadian Association of Retired Teachers, the National Association of Federal Retirees, the Council of Senior Citizens’ Organizations of BC and the Canadian Medical Association (CMA).

Dr. Webb spoke about how he experienced firsthand the need for a national seniors strategy the previous week when he suddenly had to fly to London, UK, to visit his ailing father, who had fractured his ribs from a fall and had blood around his lungs. He found his father in the intensive care unit, so weak he couldn’t swallow. It was on the weekend, with only skeleton staff on duty, even though there was a heavy patient load. “The only problem was the skeleton wasn’t getting any service,” Dr. Webb said, referring to his father’s desperate condition.

Fortunately, Dr. Webb was able to make some calls on both sides of the Atlantic and found a bed in another institution. Most families aren’t in a position to help a loved one that way and unfortunately, Dr. Webb’s father’s experience wouldn’t have been much better on this side of the Atlantic because of Canada’s lack of a national seniors strategy.

Dr. Webb notes that in B.C. physicians and government are working together through collaborative committees on some innovative programs to help fill the gaps in seniors care. However, there is no shortage of challenges, and a national seniors strategy would benefit both the province and the entire country.

“One of these collaborative committees has created the Divisions of Family Practice,” Dr. Webb said. “These are groups of family physicians around B.C. who are working together to fill health care gaps in their local communities.”

In another example, a team of health professionals in Chilliwack, including primary care doctors, specialized seniors care nurses, a geriatrician and a geriatric psychiatrist, is making it easier for seniors to get focused care.

As for Dr. Webb’s father? He is recovering nicely and will soon be home.

Dr. Chris Simpson, past president of the CMA, said the status quo in health care simply can’t stand much longer. Because acute care physicians simply don’t have long-term care facilities to discharge their elderly chronic-care patients to or home care support to set them up with, hospitals have become overcrowded and dangerous places, with hospital-borne infection rates skyrocketing.

In New Brunswick, 25 per cent of hospital beds are taken up this way.

The caregiving role is often left up to family and friends. Dr. Neena Chappell, Canada Research Chair in Social Gerontology at the University of Victoria, said informal, mainly family, caregivers are providing between 75 to 85 per cent of care to older adults.

European research, she said, demonstrates that caregivers do not stop providing care when home care and home support is comprehensive. Older adults can remain in the community longer with home care, home support and care from caregivers.

“Caregivers need to be part of the care team. They need to be supported,” she added.

Dr. Simpson said the health care system is in a crisis that requires leadership by the federal government. Instead, Ottawa is dangerously close to being “non-players in health care.”

The CMA is working to make seniors care a ballot issue in the Oct. 19 federal election. It is also working to persuade all four national parties to include seniors care in their platforms. So far, only the incumbent Conservatives have not agreed.

Ultimately, the CMA is working for a national seniors strategy — something that will help shape what kind of a country we will be, Dr. Simpson said.

“For me, the work begins after Oct. 19,” Dr. Simpson said. “It’s easy to allocate money. It’s hard to develop a plan.”

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