10/21/2011 01:38 EDT | Updated 12/21/2011 05:12 EST

N.B. government to put greater focus and funding on illness prevention

FREDERICTON - New Brunswick Premier David Alward says he's committed to redirecting some of the province's health-care funding into keeping people healthy early on.

"We are moving some of our focus from always thinking about health care as being taking care of people who are sick, to health care being very involved in keeping people healthier longer," Alward said at a conference on primary health care in Fredericton on Friday.

Alward said his government has already launched new programs on diabetes and mental health, but more will be done in the years ahead.

"My hope is that this is a stepping off point where we can see momentum move forward to have real change within our health-care system," he said.

The conference was held as a followup to a survey of primary health care in New Brunswick and to help produce recommendations for government.

Health Minister Madeleine Dube said she expects to have those recommendations early next year.

"The reality is we need to work a little bit earlier to make sure people have access and have early intervention, early diagnosis, and then they will be healthier longer and we will prevent them from being hospitalized," Dube said.

Dr. Aurel Schofield, vice-chairman of the faculty of medical science at the University of Moncton, said the province currently has a disease system rather than a health system.

"We put all our money in chronic disease and hospital beds and in high specialty," he said.

"There is a place for that, but if we can spend more in primary care, the studies show we can make a major difference."

This fiscal year, New Brunswick will spend $2.5 billion on health care.

Schofield said putting a greater focus on primary care will ensure that money is better spent.

"Investing in primary care is not an expense, it's really providing the right care for the right person at the right time, including health promotion and prevention," Schofield said.

He said better co-ordination of existing primary care, such as doctors and social workers, will result in a healthier population.

Schofield said using a team approach helps detect warning signs for future illness and gets the right solutions in place before a person becomes ill.

However he said it could take 20 to 30 years to phase-in all the required changes.

Dube said she doesn't want to treat every community in the province with one "cookie-cutter" approach to primary care.

"Each community has specific needs, so the design of primary health care within each community could be different, but we need to tackle that," Dube said.