A Personal Journey Through Public and Private Health Care

Disclaimer:  The following blog was written by Dr. Darren Cargill (pictured below).  He asked that I put it up for him.  Dr. Cargill is a palliative care physician from Windsor, Ontario.  Opinions are his and his alone, and do not necessarily reflect my opinions, or those of the Ontario Medical Association.

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Recently, a series of articles in the Toronto Star claim that Ontario Premier Doug Ford is looking at “private” options to end hallway medicine.  This was, of course, immediately denied by Health Minister Christine Elliot who stated her government’s ongoing support for public health care.

To support this narrative, the Ontario NDP brought forward a leaked piece of draft legislation called the “Health Systems Efficiency Act”. This draft suggests that all 14 Local Health Integration Networks (LHINs) and many other agencies (Health Quality Ontario, eHealth, etc.) are to be rolled into one big Agency.  NDP Leader Andrea Horwath claims that this draft legislation is a signal that private health care is the real agenda for the Ford government.  Interesting times for health care in Ontario.

In Andre Picard’s book “Matters of Life and Death,” he eloquently outlines the history of Medicare in Canada, warts and all.  I think we can all agree with his comment “Canadians want care that is appropriate, timely, accessible, safe and affordable, from birth to death.”

So here is our story. In 2007, my wife was diagnosed with cancer. She received excellent care here in Windsor as well as at Western in London as part of her journey.  I can honestly say, that she would not be here today if not for that excellent care. I am indebted to our system for saving her.

Getting cancer at 29 is frightening.  When we wanted a second opinion to confirm the diagnosis and ensure that we were receiving the best possible care, we booked an appointment at Karmanos Cancer Centre in Detroit.  A second opinion in Ontario would have taken months. We got our appointment within days across the border. They confirmed that Windsor was giving us fantastic care.

At one point during her treatment, she needed an MRI.  The wait was many months in Ontario.  At first, she was ok to wait but as the days passed, the wait took its toll.  Eventually, we decided to go to Detroit and have the MRI done, with only a few days wait and near instantaneous access to the results.

When we needed help conceiving following chemotherapy, this too was not covered by our public system and we paid out of pocket for that.  We required help from physicians in both Windsor and Detroit. Today we have a son.  And he has a mother.

Neither system alone gave us what we needed. It was both.

We already have private health care in Canada.  Doctors’ offices are privately run businesses that rely on single-payer public funding to operate. We also have private care when we pay out of pocket for drugs, physiotherapy, psychotherapy, fertility treatments, and dental care.  Canadians already spend money out of pocket for health care so the fears around a “two-tiered” system are odd, to say the least. Two-tiered refers to the argument about equity, not public/private, in my humble opinion.

Many will claim I am a physician and had “the means” to avail myself of private care.  But for the record, I was less than 2 years into my career and still had over two hundred thousand dollars in debt from tuition gathering interest every day.  We had to ask family for loans to support us.

For me, the price was worth it.  I would have preferred to have all of our care provided in Canada, but the public system simply could not give us everything we needed.  I believe it was providence that we ended up in Windsor, a short drive away from a world class cancer centre and fertility experts in Detroit.  Ontario gave us most of what we needed and prevented catastrophic financial consequences but privately delivered care in Detroit helped to fill in the gaps.

Why couldn’t I have those options in Canada?

To be clear, I am not suggesting we adopt a US style for-profit system and I am not suggesting we abandon our public system. What I am suggesting is that we have a mature conversation about our system, it’s limitations and whether there is a way to supplement or augment our “good not great” publicly funded, single payer system with private options that could enhance the care we deliver. Can we make our system better through private innovation and efficiencies while preserving all the best parts of public Medicare?

I am asking for a conversation.

As a palliative care physician, I won’t benefit from privatization.  End of life care and symptom management for patients with life-limiting illness will remain publicly funded.  But end of life care does give us a great example of what a good conversation could look like.

In 2015 the Supreme Court of Canada’s Carter decision came down and we were required, as a nation, to address the issue of Medical Assistance In Dying (MAID). Previously, MAID was taboo and “verboten.”  We could not raise it with our patients or even discuss it. But a funny thing happened. Once this prohibition was raised, it got easier to discuss death and dying. Whether or not you support MAID or not, one thing is indisputable.  The conversation has been elevated.

In his book, Picard states “we talk endlessly about sustainability of Medicare but have no idea what we want to sustain.  Our Medicare model is a relic, frozen in time. Tommy Douglas’s role in shaping publicly funded health care is celebrated, mythologized even.  But we conveniently ignore that Medicare was designed to meet the needs of 1950s Canada.”

All on the first page of his chapter on Medicare.I couldn’t agree more.  And while we are at it, let’s stop tilting at wind mills.

I do not pretend to have all the answers.  I just know we need a mature conversation about public AND private health care.  Let’s not shut down the conversation out of fear-mongering and ignorance. To paraphrase former CPSO president David Rouselle: “let’s not repeat the same sterile conservations again.”

Author: justanoldcountrydoctor

Practicing rural family medicine since 1992. I still have active privileges at the Collingwood Hospital. Currently President-Elect of the Ontario Medical Association.

2 thoughts on “A Personal Journey Through Public and Private Health Care”

  1. Well said. I hope that by allowing pts. with the means to do so, to obtain imaging, it will take the pressure off the public system. The other side of the coin is the Pt’s responsibility for usage. It is not ok to go to the doctor’s office for a cold, a minor ache or pain of some sort. It is not ok to go because you like chatting with the staff and doctor. I have a serious and very real health issue and my doc can’t get me to come in more than once per year. If pts. feel like healthcare is free, they give it no value. I would say that likely 60% of daily visits to fam. docs could be erased if pts. would use common sense but since it’s “free” they will go in just for a little reassurance. People have no idea the amount of work created by a visit. Perhaps the public in Ontario need to stop treating our doctor’s offices like fast food joints, get cheap product and hang out then complain about how they didn’t get everything they want. Yep, I said that out loud…

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