Trust in Canada’s Long-Term Care System is at an All-Time Low

People in the know – healthcare advocates, medical malpractice lawyers, long-term care workers, residents and their families – have been aware of critical issues in Ontario’s long-term care system for years. Now, thanks to the slow-motion catastrophe that has played out in nursing homes and long-term care facilities during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, those issues have been thrust into the national spotlight. The result is a deep and growing mistrust in Canadian long-term care systems that will have profound consequences over the coming years.

A survey of more than 2,000 Canadians, conducted by the National Institute of Ageing and the Canadian Medical Association in November and December 2020, found that 85 per cent of respondents said they ‘would do everything possible to avoid moving into an LTC home’ in the future, according to a report from Radio Canada.

The survey respondents also overwhelmingly held negative views of the response to COVID-19 both by governments and long-term care providers. Eight-one per cent believed that, while there were issues in long-term care homes prior to COVID-19, the pandemic has only made them worse. Seventy-three per cent said COVID deaths in long-term care could have been reduced by swifter government action; only 45 per cent thought stakeholders had learned lessons during the first wave that helped reduce deaths during the second.

Medical malpractice lawyers tend to hold similar views to the survey respondents. At Will Davidson LLP, we have initiated class action proceedings against several long-term care facilities and facility operators – including large national chains like Extendicare – that failed to appropriately prepare for the first wave of the pandemic, failed to take necessary preventative measures once the pandemic arrived, and failed to apply lessons learned during the first wave to the second wave of infections and deaths.

Of course, many of the circumstances that enabled the virus to surge through Ontario’s long-term care homes had been points of concern before the pandemic took hold. Understaffing has been a constant worry, as has the standard of training. Patient neglect and abuse have also been disturbingly common.

These issues, troubling as they were even without the presence of a highly contagious virus with uniquely potent risks to seniors, quickly proved to be catastrophic starting in March 2020. By late May, 80 per cent of all COVID fatalities in Canada had occurred in long-term care facilities. Today, that rate has fallen only slightly, to 70 per cent. According to one tally, reported by CTV News, nearly 15,600 Canadian long-term care residents have succumbed to the virus.

For long-term care residents, high vaccination rates mean the worst of the pandemic is likely over. But the critical issues it exposed haven’t been resolved, meaning medical malpractice lawyers will continue to field calls from injured and neglected residents unless fundamental changes are made. Now is the time to make them: Canada’s population is steadily aging and the long-term care population is expected to explode in coming years.

“It’s this completely diametric opposition to what you would want,” said Laura Tamblyn Watts, CEO of CanAge, a national seniors’ advocacy group, to CTV News about shaky trust in the long-term care system. “If feels worse than ever, it’s trusted the least it has ever been trusted, and it has been at a higher rate of need than ever.”

“People are scared, they saw what happened,” added Vivian Stamatopoulos, a long-term care advocate and researcher and an associate professor at Ontario Tech University. “They don’t trust the system as is, particularly for the for-profit element of it.”

Advocates agree that solutions to this crisis exist: in her interview, Stamatopoulos lauded a Danish model that prioritized community care, home care, and small communal living facilities over large long-term care homes. Another interviewee focused on new technology, not dissimilar from existing devices like smartphones and smart watches, that would allow seniors to stay at home longer. Tamblyn Watts emphasized the importance of the home care system, and the need to make it more affordable and accessible.

“People can’t afford home care, yes, you shouldn’t have to afford homecare and it shouldn’t be an issue anyone struggles with,” she said. “The problem is when we are making people live in unnecessary risk because we don’t provide them with the answers and the solutions and the supports to help them live better.”

There has also been a push, from a wide range of stakeholders, to move away from the private long-term care model. Eighty-six per cent of respondents to the National Institute of Ageing/Canadian Medical Association survey, including 96 per cent of respondents aged 65 or older, said long-term care should be part of the provinces’ publicly funded healthcare systems. These calls are unsurprising given COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on private facilities compared to public ones.

The one thing that all of these changes have in common is that they require significant public investment. If the Government of Ontario is serious about improving the quality of its long-term care system, it will have to provide the funding to prove it.

Will Davidson LLP has represented victims of nursing home negligence for years. If you or a member of your family has been affected by the COVID-19 crisis in Ontario’s long-term care system, contact us today to learn how we can help.

Image: Shutterstock

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