June 25, 2024

Holistic Pulse

Healthcare is more important

Our health-care system is crashing

4 min read

The COVID-19 pandemic has already killed more than 50,000 Canadians and crippled our sense of national unity and cohesion. But its biggest casualty may be yet to come: Canada’s health-care system.

If you’ve spent even a moment trying to access critical care over the last few years, you know just how bad things have gotten. Wait times at emergency rooms often stretch into days rather than hours, surgeries and other necessary procedures are being delayed, and finding a family doctor just keeps getting more difficult. Doctors and nurses, many of whom are suffering from pandemic-related burnout and some low-grade PTSD, are retiring early. As a result, a system that’s supposed to provide universal coverage is becoming decidedly less equitable. As Dr. Tara Kiran noted in a new study published in the CMAJ, “What we have is a haves-and-have-nots situation. [There are] people who do have access to a family doctor and a health team, and then those who have nothing.”

In Alberta, where the UCP has made a point of undermining the morale of doctors and health-care workers with direct funding cuts and a refusal to take COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses seriously, the issue is particularly acute. According to a recent survey of family doctors in the province, 91 per cent are concerned about the financial viability of their practice, with 61 per cent considering leaving the province as a result. This is happening at a time when a record number of Albertans are looking for a family doctor or trying to avoid losing one they already have.

“Our entire health-care system is at stake,” Alberta Medical Association president Paul Parks told reporters at a press conference earlier this week. “Because if you don’t fix primary care, it’s impossible to address the issues in acute care or continuing care or mental health and addictions care.”

Case in point: Edmonton’s pediatric hospital was so short-staffed last month, and so overwhelmed with patients, that it cancelled and delayed surgeries for sick and injured kids. As a pair of doctors noted in a Dec. 25 letter to the provincial government, “Several children each week are having their treatment or surgery cancelled with no guarantee of urgent rescheduling… After the events of last week, we can tell you that we are failing, daily, and children are suffering and may die as a result.”

Things aren’t much better in other provinces, which all face the same dangerous combination of a depleted workforce, debt-focused governments and ever-expanding demand from an aging population. A recent Angus Reid Institute survey showed that fewer than two in five Canadians said their province was handling the health-care system well.

Ironically, the highest rating in the country came in Alberta, where 37 per cent of people said the government was doing a “good” or “very good” job of handling health care. That’s probably because the provincial government has made a big show out of its plan to revamp the health-care system. For some people, it seems, any change is better than the rapidly deteriorating status quo.

But tinkering with the organizational structure of Alberta’s health system or trying to scapegoat public servants for the province’s health-care problems isn’t going to work. If anything, it seems designed to sow further chaos and instability to break the system’s back so the government can then rebuild it in its own image.

The federal Liberal government would do well to make this far more of an issue than it has. It could remind voters that it’s the mostly Conservative provincial premiers who are responsible for managing and delivering health-care services, and who are failing abjectly at that crucial job.

And then, of course, there’s the man who’s poised to become prime minister — and who doesn’t seem like the type who would make the sort of necessary federal investments in repairing our most important safety net. As Pierre Poilievre told reporters back in March 2020 when the federal government was rolling out the financial aid programs that saved millions of businesses and households from ruin, “You might want to address it through big fat government programs — we’re Conservatives, so we don’t believe in that.”

From coast to coast, Canadians are deeply frustrated with their health-care system and the governments charged with running them. Why it’s time for an urgent national conversation about its future — and for the federal government to lead it.

Indeed, they don’t.

What’s needed now is a national effort to save the health-care system from those who want to break it. We have to move past the binary, two-dimensional arguments about “American-style health care” and realize the Canadian style of providing healthcare is increasingly unsatisfactory to most of us. We need a system that works in and for the 21st century and can accommodate our ever-aging population. That’s probably going to mean more money. It almost certainly will mean more federal control and oversight over provinces that don’t always spend what they’re given and can’t co-ordinate and communicate effectively with each other.

This is a big ask of a federal government that already seems too tired to manage its own existing programs and problems, never mind adding a huge new one to the pile. But if they don’t do something dramatic here, the next federal government almost certainly will — and Canadians may all end up poorer for it.


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