Well. Apparently, Canadians do have a limit to the amount of unnecessary discomfort and ineffectual leadership that they will suffer. Polls, demonstrations and a convoy of truckers entrenched in downtown Ottawa all provide sufficient evidence to show that Canadians. Are. Fed. Up.
They want our society to go back to our pre-COVID norms and, while that may be the panacea for many of our frustrations, it can not – and should not – be the case for health care. In fact, there has never been a more opportune time for Canadians to demand changes to our archaic medical system.
Constant updates on COVID numbers and hospitalizations have opened the eyes of many to the workings of our medical system and, for the most part, these fresh insights have revealed a woefully inadequate system.
Staff shortages, limited access to doctors and overwhelmed acute care units have all made headlines. So have wait lists showing hundreds of thousands of delayed surgeries and diagnostic procedures. Even COVID-related deaths are reported daily.
Canadians could easily conclude that COVID has decimated our medical system, but the sad truth is — none of this is new.
All of the above were critical health care issues long before a pandemic suddenly made them newsworthy.
For example, a recent report (https://www.cma.ca/sites/default/files/pdf/health-advocacy/Deloitte-report-nov2021-EN.pdf) commissioned by the Canadian Medical Association found that delayed and never received health care may have contributed to more than 4,000 additional deaths (not related to COVID and most likely due to a lack of resources) between August and December of 2020.
Other research shows that at least 11,581 Canadians died in 2020-21 while waiting for surgeries, diagnostic scans and appointments with specialists (https://secondstreet.org/2021/12/09/waiting-list-deaths-surge-in-2020-21/). In fact, since April 2018, SecondStreet.org has identified a total of 26,875 cases where patients died while waiting for surgery and scans whether it be potentially life-saving treatment such as cardiac surgeries or procedures like hip replacements that could have improved their quality of life.
The statistics are horrifying, yet numbers alone are quickly forgotten and often fail to convey the devastating impact that waiting for medical care has on individuals. For that reason, telling the real-life stories of Canadians and their health care experiences has become a powerful means of communication, an effective tool for patient advocacy and now, hopefully, a catalyst for change.
Consider the case of a 74-year-old musician/cab driver in Newfoundland named Edward. In 2019, he spent weeks in a hospital room waiting for triple bypass surgery to clear his clogged arteries. He was frustrated at the extra expense that this was creating for our health-care system and wanted to go home. Yet he was told that if he left the hospital, he would be reassigned to the bottom of the surgical waitlist.
Just two weeks later, he was dead. He had passed away due to complications from heart surgery. Sadly, his family will never know if being operated on weeks earlier would have made a difference in his survival.
Julie of Nanaimo, B.C. has been left to ponder that same question. Several years ago, her husband became ill. His doctor ordered a diagnostic test that was scheduled for March 19 — almost five months later.
He never made it to the test. He was admitted to the emergency department on March 1 and two days later diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He died shortly after receiving his initial radiation and chemotherapy treatments.
Greg’s family has also been left to wonder ‘what if?’ He was a 31-year-old Albertan who had what was likely a very treatable case of testicular cancer. He was referred to a urologist and waited months only to find out that the doctor was no longer practicing. He got a second referral to see another urologist only to be informed by that clinic that the doctor was away for an extended period of time. Months later, Greg underwent surgery.
Two days after his operation, complications developed and Greg was unable to contact his urologist. He went to the emergency department but was sent home and told that the cancer clinic would follow up. He died the next day.
Statistics are not easily recalled, and they may not motivate Canadians to call for change; but reading about the health care experiences of others will hopefully bring us to recognize the dire need to refocus health care on its initial, yet long-forgotten purpose – meeting patients’ needs.
Susan Martinuk is a Research Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. She is the author of a just-published book, Patients at Risk: Exposing Canada’s Health-care Crisis.