Poilievre proposes national 'Blue Seal' standard for doctors, nurses to work anywhere in Canada

Healthcare systems across the country have not yet recovered from the pandemic strain. People endure long waiting times while surgery backlogs, staffing shortages, and clogged emergency rooms besiege hospitals.

Poilievre proposes national 'Blue Seal' standard for doctors, nurses to work anywhere in Canada
The Canadian Press / Adrian Wyld
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Roughly one-in-10 Canadians are still waiting for surgery, a diagnostic scan, or an appointment with a specialist.

According to the Fraser Institute and Secondstreet.org, Canadian patients waited longer than ever this year for medical treatment, including critical surgeries, treatments, and procedures. In 2021/22, median wait times for Canadians were 27.4 weeks — the longest ever recorded — up from 25.6 weeks in 2020/21. 

At least 13,581 patients died waiting for surgeries, procedures, and diagnostic scans last year, compared to 11,581 in 2021.

On Sunday, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre called on Ottawa to develop a national standards system, permitting qualified doctors and nurses to work anywhere in the country.

He proposed a "Blue Seal" standard, modelled after the Red Seal program used in the skilled trades, that applies to the national competency test for a worker's profession. If healthcare workers pass the test, it will expedite their licensing to work anywhere that adopts the new standard.

"It's common sense. If you can do the job, you can get the job," said Poilievre, who claims the system would reduce personnel shortages plaguing the healthcare system.

The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) also flagged the lack of mobility for physicians as a fundamental problem in the healthcare system, noting that in most cases, trying to move between provinces means "a lengthy application process, sometimes months-long, and thousands of dollars in fees."

The CMA has advocated for pan-Canadian licensing, arguing it has broad support among its members and would create a more efficient and flexible system.

"We need to rethink the idea that we can carry on with 13 separate health systems that don't collaborate at a deep level," said CMA president Dr. Alika Lafontaine last year.

Poilievre adds that a national standard would encourage Canadian healthcare workers to stay in the country rather than move abroad.

He also contends it would make it easier for foreign-trained doctors and nurses to get jobs in Canada.

"It's time to bring home the best healthcare in the world to Canada. It's time to bring home our doctors and nurses."

Ottawa advocated provinces embrace a national recognition of credentials, making it part of their healthcare proposal in February, along with commitments to ease the way for foreign-trained workers.

"We'll be asking provinces and territories to recognize credentials Canada-wide so that our well-trained healthcare professionals can work wherever there is need," said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Though the CMA also supports repatriating Canadian doctors working abroad, they stressed wholesale reform "rather than bringing more workers into a system that needs significant repair and is likely to wear them out along with their Canadian-trained colleagues."

Meanwhile, some provinces have taken the initiative to address concerns in their healthcare systems, with BC putting in place a similar policy in January and Ontario moving forward on allowing doctors from other provinces to work more efficiently.

On the east coast, the Atlantic provinces created a new registry of doctors interested in working across the region.

"What we're talking about is making it easier for them to pitch in where it's necessary for other provinces," said Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston in February.

According to the OurCare national survey, 6.5 million Canadians do not have a family physician or nurse practitioner — up 2 million since pre-COVID.

Around 1 in 3 adults in BC, Quebec, and the Atlantic provinces reported not having a family doctor or nurse practitioner. That number drops to 13% in Ontario.

But a recent analysis of health administrative data in Ontario found the number of people without regular access to primary care rose from 1.8 million in March 2020 to 2.2 million in March 2022. 

Nova Scotia decided to accept US board certifications for doctors without undergoing additional accreditation to address staffing concerns. A similar process for nurses in and outside Canada is ongoing.

The federal government recently concluded a series of bilateral deals with provinces and a general increase in the Canada Health Transfer (CHT) over the next few years, including calls for better data sharing and reporting between provinces and the federal government.

Trudeau proposed to the premiers in February an increase in healthcare spending by $196.1 billion over the next decade.

He also offered to top-up the CHT by an additional $2 billion — bringing it to $51.3 billion — while proposing a boost to the annual health transfer increase to 5% a year for five years, up from 3% under the previous cost-sharing agreement.

Despite coming short, the premiers said they wouldn't leave money on the table to aid their ailing healthcare systems.

According to the survey, those most likely not to have a family physician or nurse practitioner are among the lower-income and poorer health groups. Another 45% of those aged 18 to 29 said they didn't have a family doctor.

Among the 65 and older age group, 13% reported a lack of a family physician.  

Of those lacking a primary care physician, 12% regularly turn to a specialist physician, hospital emergency staff or pharmacists for care.

Another 21% reported having to pay a fee when they sought care for their urgent problem, with the fee paying for the appointment 80% of the time.

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