Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bus-ride health care hard to take

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FLIN FLON -- Open up and say "ahhh." Take two and call me in the morning. Catch a 12-hour bus ride.

Those first two statements are welcome instructions for northern Manitoba patients, but the third? Not so much.

For far too long, frequent (not to mention costly and exhausting) travel to Winnipeg for specialized care has been one of the most enduring tribulations of northern health care.

Thankfully a partial remedy, at least, is in the works.

Helga Bryant, the energetic, silver-haired CEO of the Northern Health Region, is striving toward a more self-reliant north where patients access a greater number of specialists closer to home.

"This isn't about lessening any of our sites," she told the Flin Flon and District Chamber of Commerce last month. "This is in fact about growing and instilling even more pride in our sites, because they're going to do more of what they're really good at doing and they're going to become the regional experts in that."

Bryant envisions patients from across the region travelling less often down south and more often to Thompson, The Pas and Flin Flon -- the region's three major centres -- for different services.

Thompson, she noted, already has many specialists who could be seeing more patients from across the broader north. Flin Flon, with its current equipment and expertise, could be better utilized for endoscopy, the camera-assisted exploration of the inner body.

The NHR is so serious about the plan, it recently hired a consulting firm to help determine how best to organize clinical services within the vast, sparsely populated region.

Bryant said this will include developing "little mini-centres of excellence" in different specialties across the three larger communities.

Talks are also ongoing with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority to have doctors, specialists and other care providers split their time between the Winnipeg and northern health regions.

This would let professionals maintain their preferred big-city lifestyle while still bringing their sought-after skills to the north.

"That's not years down the road -- that's months down the road, I would say," Bryant, a registered nurse by profession, said.

Unfortunately, the NDP government dealt Bryant's vision of more inter-region health travel a blow by yanking a subsidy from Greyhound in 2012.

That terminated daytime bus service between Flin Flon and The Pas as well as all service between Flin Flon, Snow Lake and Thompson. If you don't have access to a car, good luck.

But without offering details, Bryant said travel solutions are in the offing.

"We will all hear about (that) when the time is right," she said.

Even if transportation is resolved, Bryant has her work cut out for her, if for no other reason than retaining professionals, particularly in health care, can be a David and Goliath struggle in this part of the province.

Then again, there are success stories on which to build.

Take, for instance, the Thompson-based Northern Health Region Pain Clinic, where services basically are on par with those of Winnipeg.

There's also the fact that in many cases travel is no longer necessary to connect patients with faraway specialists. Usage of the MBTelehealth program, a Skype-like distance-delivery program, has exploded in the last decade.

If Bryant is hoping to grab the province's attention with her plan -- which she surely is -- she enjoys a benefit no other northern Manitoba health-care advocate ever had.

As the inaugural head of the nearly two-year-old NHR, borne out of the amalgamation of the old Burntwood and Nor-Man regional health authorities, she represents virtually all of the north.

"There is now one voice for northern Manitoba," Bryant said, calling this "a huge advantage."

Still, northerners are under no illusion that we will one day enjoy absolute health-care parity with our southern counterparts. Realistically, extreme emergencies and many precise specialties will always warrant trips to big cities.

But with sensible investments and strong leadership, we can and should be doing better than we are. Bryant knows this, but do her superiors within the provincial government?


Jonathon Naylor is editor of the Reminder newspaper in Flin Flon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 13, 2014 A15

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