A Pleasant Afternoon (Part 1)

An afternoon in the hospital spent with a friendly, talkative lady led to a stimulating conversation about health, and by extension, Canada’s healthcare system – and with an ordinary, tax-paying, law-abiding citizen, no less. It was her truly abysmal experience with the healthcare system in Ontario (she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and is now being treated at Princess Margaret Hospital) that prompted me to write this series.

She started off by introducing her struggles with the healthcare system, which left her with no choice but to go to the States to have surgery. It wasn’t so much that the doctors here weren’t good enough – “oh no, I assure you. America likes to steal our doctors” – but because the wait times were too long. It wasn’t “necessary” for her to undergo a surgical procedure just yet, but as always when it comes to cancer, time was of the essence.

Canadians pride themselves on their free healthcare system, much unlike our partners to the south. I, being one of them, brought this up to her:  “We do have this international reputation of having amazing healthcare though. I mean, compared to the States, we Canadians are pretty happy about the ‘free healthcare’ part.”

She had a ghost of a smirk on her face as I said this, and I soon found out why. Having saved enough money during her years as a lawyer, she was fortunate enough to have had the means to fly to the States for her surgery, and even obtain a PET scan. She highlighted that Canada may have “free” healthcare, but it comes at the cost of time. Many of the obstacles that patients face are due to the “wait and see” attitudes of Canadian healthcare professionals, because our healthcare system cannot support a culture of immediately ordering tests for patients simply based on speculation of a diagnosis.

“So you see, my surgery cost quite a lot. But since I didn’t have any medical insurance in the States, I ended up getting a discount. I paid less than $90,000CAD. And honestly, when it’s something between life and death, that’s like having your cake and eating it too!”

And to her, it was. For those who can afford such a large price tag – as long as it’s to save their lives—it’s a price they’re willing to pay. Therefore, they skip the bureaucratic and inefficient healthcare system here, and get equally as good (or perhaps even better) healthcare elsewhere.

That in itself creates a huge problem for health equity, which is something Canada has been striving to achieve in the past couple of years. Those who may not be so fortunate as to have a sum of money lying around will have to go through our inefficient system, and very likely, lose their life in the progress. Meanwhile, those who are fortunate enough to afford healthcare elsewhere will have a much higher chance of surviving terminal diseases, such as cancer. This again is a huge example of the inequalities that people at the ends of the socioeconomic spectrum experience. This, coupled with all the other inequalities they face, makes it extremely hard for them to ever climb the ladder, thus contributing to a widening gap between the rich and the poor.

Yet, the healthcare system is not managed simply by healthcare professionals – doctors, nurses, physician assistants, etc. Some aspects of the system, such as the funding and control of much of the medical equipment (e.g. PET scanner/machines), are controlled by the government. But therein lies another huge problem…

(Written by Judy Chen / Image Source)

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