Nunavut’s healthcare system continues to face a number of challenges in the year ahead, several of which stem from the Covid-19 pandemic, such as the national shortage of healthcare workers, or the backlog caused by addressing Covid over the last few years.
“All the backlogs it has created in different areas whether it be surgeries, dental, eye care. Looking at the system across Nunavut we’re still being affected by the last few years,” said Nunavut Health Minister John Main.
The most extreme examples of Nunavut’s healthcare staff shortages, according to Main, come in the form of health closures.
Attempts by the department to address healthcare staff shortages include supplementing with virtual services and bringing in paramedics for emergency care. The healthcare staff shortage in Nunavut and across Canada also affects other healthcare services.
“Just because it’s not an emergency doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be addressed or looked at. When we see emergency-only status for communities for weeks at a time, that’s the impact of our staffing shortage,” said Main. “You’re creating a backlog of unmet needs. It’s not something we want to see in the territory at all.”
Main said the department continues to work in attracting healthcare professionals but so are others.
“All these jurisdictions are doing the same thing, they are looking for ways to attract and retain healthcare professionals. So we have to keep up, the staff does incredible work. We just have to take better care of them. In terms of protection from burnout, from stresses and making sure they’re being compensated,” said Main, adding “It does take a team to make a surgery go successful.”
A first ministers’ meeting between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Canada’s premiers takes place on Feb. 7. It is focused on the federal health transfer, but the interest for Nunavut will be on other funding streams.
“The interest for us in Nunavut is the Territorial Health Investment Fund, or the THIF. That’s a fund that’s been around for over 15 years, it’s a source of funding from the federal government for the territories,” said Main.
The focus on healthcare is because of systemic nationwide problems such as the staffing shortages, he added, saying “some of these conversations are long overdue.”
Funding is at the heart of the concerns around replacing aging healthcare infrastructure across Nunavut.
“It’s important we have proper infrastructure for staff and for residents. It impacts the public and it impacts the staff negatively,” said Main.
One example of aging infrastructure Main said needs replacing was the Qikiqtarjuaq health centre but it also a concern across the territory.
“It’s not just Qikiqtarjuaq, it’s Baker Lake, it’s Kugluktuk, it’s Arviat, the list goes on in terms of the communities that need better infrastructure.”
It goes beyond health centres, he added. Mental health programming space and Elders homes are also needed in Nunavut’s communities.
Increase in respiratory illnesses
Following the holiday season a surge in respiratory illnesses occurred in the territory. This not only included Covid-19 but also the flu and RSV (respiratory syncyial virus). Main said lessons learned from the pandemic apply to more than Covid-19.
“It varies from community to community but we keep coming back to the recommendations we have,” he said.
Vaccination was at the top of these recommendations, be it for the flu, Covid-19 or other illnesses. Other recommendations include staying home when sick, wearing masks in public settings, using rapid tests when available if symptoms present themselves.
“We learned through Covid just how powerful public health tools can be, we’re not just talking about Covid. RSV, flu, all these safe measures will work for these other illnesses.”
Main says the Nunavut government’s latest TB information sharing agreement signed with Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated is the department’s “newest tool we have” in fighting respiratory illnesses in Nunavut.
Main wanted to highlight mental health struggles, particularly among younger Nunavummiut.
He noted there is now increased access to virtual or remote counselling services, in addition to existing helplines.
“The healing by talking program that our department runs is really taking off,” said Main, which enables you to speak with the same counsellor as you have before virtually. Online or text-based services are also available.
From services in Inuktitut or youth-focused helplines, there are more tools now more than ever to talk to someone.
“We just need to continue talking about mental health and continue de-stigmatizing it,” said Main.