Canadian health care falls short of what we deserve

TheGlobeandMail.com – Opinions – Whether it’s Swedish user fees or American health savings accounts, progressive alternatives exist
Published Monday, June 7,2010.   David Gratzer

Can you help me find a family doctor?” It’s a question I’m asked practically every day in the hospital wards where I work. No wonder. According to the Canadian Medical Association, four million to five million people don’t have a family physician.

The doctor shortage is a major problem with our health-care system. Unfortunately, it’s just one of many. Our patients wait too long for basic care. The system is plagued by too much bureaucracy. And despite a massive infusion of money – the Ontario health budget has roughly doubled in the past decade – we must acknowledge what no government official is willing to admit: Canadian health care falls short of what we deserve.

There has been progress in reducing wait times in the five priority areas set out by the federal and provincial governments. Radiation therapy, for example, is delivered in a timelier manner in some cities across Canada than just a few years ago. But even drawing on government statistics – which are often inconsistent from province to province – Canadians wait too long for everything from surgeries like knee replacements (seven provinces fail to meet the benchmark wait times) to MRI scans (a majority of provinces aren’t even collecting proper data yet). In other words, we’re falling short, even after massive increases in spending, even by governments’ own standards and data.

Two years after a parliamentary committee called unanimously for reform, we still lag behind many European countries on the introduction of new and orphan drugs to treat rare disorders. There are still too many tragedies. Think of the Montreal woman who died recently after waiting four days in a hospital ER, the last of a string of Quebec deaths that led the head of that province’s College of Physicians to hope for a “miracle.”

With so many problems, provincial governments are forced to spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year purchasing American health care for Canadians. Yes, our public dollars go to pay for their private health services.

Canadians, though, are routinely told how well our health-care system compares to those of other nations. It’s not so. Take the United States. Despite the heated political rhetoric north of the 49th parallel about American health care, their patients are more likely to survive cancer (66.3 per cent over five years for American men, but 58 per cent for Canadian men, based on recent data from national databases). Their outcomes are also better for heart attacks and transplants. And, based on data from the Joint Canada/U.S. Survey of Health, Americans have greater access to preventive screening tests and higher treatment rates for chronic illnesses, and the poor under our public system seem to be less healthy relative to the non-poor than their American counterparts.

That’s not an endorsement of an American-style system. Far from it. But for too long, we’ve looked south of the border and felt smug, very smug. In the coming years, we as a nation will spend more on health care but, as a new TD Economics report suggests, we can’t simply spend, spend, spend given the limits of economic growth and the realities of an aging population. We need to look to other countries for ideas – even, yes, the United States.

We must emphasize health, and not just health care. Almost one in five adult Canadians is obese. A major cost driver in future years will be treating diseases (like hypertension and diabetes) that can often be prevented if people choose healthier lifestyles.

There is a role for the private sector in health-care delivery. Provincial governments have tried to do too much for too long. The Labour government led the way in Britain, for example, contracting out services to the private sector – even surgeries – and thus saving money and increasing capacity.

People need to pay more directly for their health care. The objective isn’t to make a cancer patient burn her life savings to pay for her care – although this happens too often to some patients in Canada’s health-care system, as seen in a survey of breast cancer survivors released by the Canadian Breast Cancer Network recently. No, the goal is to use limited cost-sharing to make sure patients don’t see health care as “free” and abuse resources that should be directed to those in need. Whether it’s Swedish user fees or American health savings accounts, progressive alternatives exist.

Canada has first-rate physicians and nurses – but a second-rate health-care system. Canadians deserve first-rate care capacity, first-rate health prevention and first-rate technology. And enough physicians and nurses to deliver it to our patients. And that is the system we deserve.

David Gratzer is a physician and author. He is participating in tonight’s Munk Debate, with the resolution: “Be it resolved: I would rather get sick in the U.S. than Canada.”

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Latest Comments

6/7/2010 12:32:50 PM
Until the doctor’s union is willing to open the doors wide to make it easier for more foreign-trained doctors to practise here, any attempt to address cost through privatization will only lead to higher cost in the long run.

6/7/2010 11:47:23 AM
The article’s author quotes statistics on superior recovery times in the U.S. without explaining why(leaving us to assume, of course, that Americans are doing a better job with health care). This is a typical trick when someone is trying to lead you to his own views on any given issue. It’s quite possible that superior American recovery times has alot to do with the fact that poor Americans are kept out of the health-care line because they simple can’t afford it in the first place. Do the statistics include Americans who died because they couldn’t afford care? Do they include the MANY Americans who were turned away by their crooked insurance companies refused to cover them? We don’t know, because the author didn’t mention it(a shame). Without a more thorough examination of the American statistics, I simply don’t trust them. Our system clearly isn’t perfect. It’s also clear that our useless politicians have no ideas beyond privatization(get the monkey of their backs). Remember Mike Harris’ knee-jerk response to the Walkerton tragedy? He advocated PRIVATIZATION. He didn’t have a clue how to protect against contamination, so off-load it onto the private sector. Then the politicians are blameless(like the financial meltdown too – not their fault, just those greedy bankers). Canada’s health care problems can’t be solved by tax-and-spend politicians, it’s true. But they also won’t be solved by the simpleton’s response: Privatization.

6/7/2010 11:28:26 AM
Had a work related accident that would have left me somewhat crippled 30 years ago. Was treated very well by our health care system. My good health prior sped up my recovery. A fee in my case is not useful as it would have made no difference in the circumstances leading up the accident. The same logic would apply if someone had cancer.

If there are large scale trends that lead to problems (ie obesity), then these are societal problems that only a few people can overcome. At this point government representing the peoples wishes should start to make some changes. Sone could be an economy that gets people off their behinds, reforming the food system to mostly eliminate junk food and improve factory processed staples, and how about reducing overall chemical exposure by not allowing the introduction of new compounds without more testing and being much more stringent about products that we come in direct contact with.

The physician shortage is tied to training reductions made a couple of decades ago, and the lack of realization that physicians are chosing not to burn out with ridiculous work loads.

Ramp up the training with attention to demographics and the physician situation can be solved over a decade or so. Instead of just allocating money, more effort needs to be applied at the low level to find efficiencies. There must be a million small improvements (well known to those in health care field) that would drastically improve the situation.

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1 Comment

  1. People don’t ‘choose’ their lifestyles. Their environment forces them to. I lived in Cairo for 5 months last year and lost 15 pounds. Why? Everything was within 5 minutes walking distance. Grocery stores, bank, hair dresser, book store, restaurants, etc. They have mixed use neighborhoods that are human friendly. You don’t need a car to get around. They offer free delivery of goods.

    Here in Toronto, I live in an apartment building that is close to a cluster of other apartment buildings. The nearest grocery store is a 20 minute walk away. They don’t deliver, so I have to take a car there. The nearest book store is a 25 minute walk away. Restaurants are 30 minutes walk. It’s not practical to walk in this city. Imagine how bad it is for people who live in developments where there are no stores nearby at all.

    It’s not our healthcare system that needs fixing. It’s our environment that needs fixing.

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