On nursing-home care, Ontario is on the right track

Too often, nursing-home residents live for months in a comatose state, becoming impotent and neglecting their own care. It is unacceptable, and The Post is on the case.

Last week, Ontario’s Liberal government took a big step forward in its long-term care initiative. It announced the appointment of what will be its first chief accountability officer for the sector.

The plan is for the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care to appoint a chief accountability officer to help provide a full picture of how its initiatives are working. The office will, in the first instance, be housed in the ministry, but it also plans to look at the overall picture from region to region. The office will collect data on staffing levels, care quality and costs, and to challenge data sets it finds deficient.

This is a promising development for an organization facing an enormous crisis. The elderly and infirm in nursing homes are losing the capacity to eat and drink. They are sleep-deprived. They become drowsy, slurring their words and forgetting what they asked for. Inexperienced staff take over to make the residents’ lives more tolerable, often feeling the greatest frustration when a resident cannot easily be moved around because of medical equipment.

It’s a tragedy for Ontario’s residents, their families and the caregivers, and for the self-professed health experts we have in our government. What makes the situation even more disturbing is that staff shortages – both real and perceived – have been taking place for decades, and the government has never properly addressed them.

Critics of the government’s policy argue that nursing-home residents are disabled, and so aren’t able to effectively protest their living conditions. It’s true that Alzheimer’s disease patients are sometimes confused about the right way to eat – not to mention the ethical implications of harming them through insulin pumps. Their family members will be happy to admit that concerns about their care are grounds for a lawsuit, however. But the responsibility to ensure that residents are safe and healthy falls squarely on the shoulders of the government. The government cannot just decide to ignore the effects of human-rights violations, or the reasonable concerns of the residents themselves.

Clearly, we need a better model for building the partnerships that will allow the government to make decisions that are as transparent and informed as possible.

All of this is to say that we applaud the Ontario government’s vision, but that an even stronger commitment is necessary. It is unacceptable that Ontario – the most developed and progressive health-care system in the world – is failing its own most vulnerable residents.

Sandra Woodward is an associate professor in Health Policy and Management at Carleton University. Tasha Spencer is a research scientist at the Numerical Structure of Healthcare with the Hospital Quality Initiative at Dalhousie University.

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