Doctors should have been consulted more during the Liberal government's overhaul of the province's health-care system and they will be in the future, Stephen McNeil said on Monday.
The Liberal leader made the comments at a campaign stop in Halifax, a day after hundreds of people attended a forum in Sydney Mines organized by doctors to discuss shortcomings in the region's health-care system.
"I've heard from docs who have not felt, quite frankly, that they've been consulted enough in this process," McNeil told reporters.
"We've made a lot of change in how we deliver health care in the province."
While much of that change has been well received, McNeil said it's been made clear to him by doctors and the organization that represents them — Doctors Nova Scotia — they've felt left out of the overhaul process.
"I've made it clear that on a go-forward basis that we would continue to make sure that they're a big part of the decision-making process."
At the time the Liberal government was deep in the throes of reorganizing the health-care system, which included merging nine district health authorities into one provincial entity, the government and Doctors Nova Scotia were engaged in contract negotiations.
Challenging time for relationship
Nancy MacCready-Williams, CEO of Doctors Nova Scotia, said at that point government decided it didn't want both conversations happening at the same time with doctors.
"It's been a challenge kind of returning to that collaborative relationship we did have in the past."
MacCready-Williams said what happened in Cape Breton on Sunday shows doctors are very concerned with the loss of local decision making, particularly as it relates to recruitment and retention.
"I think there's just a level of frustration that physicians have been experiencing for a long time and it's come to a head."
McNeil's open letter
On the weekend, McNeil issued an open letter to the community, which stressed that physician pay wouldn't be changing, Northside General would remain open, doctors who want to practise solo will be allowed to do so and the Liberals will continue with doctor recruitment efforts.
He also met with officials from Doctors Nova Scotia, including MacCready-Williams. She said the meeting helped stress the importance of the health authority and government engaging physicians when changes are being made to the system.
"Flexibility, I think, is what's critical here."
NDP says merger hurt patient care
NDP Leader Gary Burrill, who attended the forum in Cape Breton, said he was moved by the depth of concern from people and the analysis provided by doctors.
"They spoke about how the government has failed to bring adequate investment to the problem," Burrill said during a campaign stop in New Waterford on Monday. "They spoke about how the government has failed to consult with Cape Breton and with health-care providers in Cape Breton."
There were representatives from all three parties at Sunday's forum.
Burrill said the total focus on the merger of the district health authorities meant patient care didn't get the attention it needed. He said his party's plan to spend $120 million over four years on new doctors, nurses and nurse practitioners would go a long way toward addressing the problems highlighted on Sunday.
"We know how many people there are without access to primary care."
Should have sat down with docs
Tory Leader Jamie Baillie said things are where they are because of the lack of consultation.
"Health care has reached a crisis in Cape Breton, people are worried that the critical mass needed to sustain the system is at risk and it finally fell to doctors to organize an event to get the McNeil government's attention," he said.
Baillie said too much of the decision making has been centralized in Halifax since the health authority merger and it's requiring people to go above and beyond to highlight problems in areas such as Cape Breton.
"The best thing we can do to get our health system back on track in Cape Breton is actually work with the doctors to make things better rather than separate them from decision making in Halifax."