OP-ED: Reforming health care will save lives
OP-ED: Reforming health care will save lives

Should we be proud of a health care system where governments are abandoning patients to die? Obviously not. 

The Canadian health care crisis has been steadily getting worse over the past decades. Covid didn’t help the situation, but our country has had a problem with wait times since well before the pandemic. 

New SecondStreet.org research highlights one of the most tragic consequences of a poorly-run health care system – death.

The fifth annual Died on a Waiting List report uncovered data from across the country through freedom of information requests on cases where surgeries and diagnostic scans were canceled due to patients having died. Sadly, it’s no surprise that the numbers have risen once again.

Over 17,000 Canadians died while waiting for surgery or a diagnostic scan in 2022-23. Since many provinces and health bodies didn’t provide complete data, we estimate the true total to be nearly double that figure. These numbers are up substantially – data suggest a 64% increase since 2018.

It’s important to distinguish the two types of deaths on waitlists. First, there are those who die while waiting for procedures that could have saved their lives – things like heart or brain surgery. Second, there are those who die while waiting for scans or surgeries that would have improved their quality of life, like a hip operation.

Critics might be tempted to dismiss the second type of case, but would you like to spend the final years of your life with a bad knee, unable to walk around and play with your grandchildren? Or with cloudy vision from cataracts, unable to even step outside on a bright day without being blinded?

You’d have to be rather dishonest to answer ‘yes.’

Unfortunately, most health bodies do not give enough data to distinguish between these two types of waitlist deaths.

Nova Scotia is a rare exception. The Atlantic province noted that, of the 532 surgical waitlist deaths, 50 were waiting for procedures that could have saved their lives. 

Kudos to them for transparency, but this is still a tragic statistic.

For the first time, Ontario provided data on the number of patients who died waiting for cardiac surgery. Since 2013, there have been 931 patients who died while waiting for heart surgery. Of those, 244 died after waiting longer than the maximum recommended wait time.

To be blunt, this is unacceptable. 

Many Canadians pride themselves on our health care system. But are the tens of thousands of deaths really something to be proud of?

Consider the case of Allison Ducluzeau. As Global News reported, the B.C. woman was diagnosed with cancer last year. She was told by the health system that the chances of her survival were too low, so they wouldn’t treat her. They said she had two years to live, and offered her assisted suicide.

Luckily, Allison was able to travel to the U.S. and get life-saving care. 

But is that really a choice Canadians should have to face? Wait to die, have the government help you commit suicide, or travel to another country? 

Canada has been throwing money at the system for decades and hoping for the better. Over the past 30 years, government spending on health care, per person, has increased at nearly double the rate of inflation. Despite this care has only gotten worse. Governments need to implement major health reforms now. 

For one, allow patients to pay for private care if they so choose. Sweden, Australia, Denmark – basically any other developed country with a universal health system allows this option and has better outcomes than Canada. This approach helps reduce wait times every time a patient decides to pay for private care.

Shaking up the way hospitals are funded could also help. Instead of giving hospitals a large cheque at the beginning of the year and hoping for the best, governments could pay them based on their output. This way, patients aren’t treated as someone the hospital ‘has’ to treat – they’re seen as a customer that results in more government funding once the patient has been treated.

These are a couple of the many potential options that can help fix Canadian health care, but it’s clear that something needs to be done.

Throwing money at the system hasn’t worked. The families of loved ones who died will tell you that.

Dom Lucyk is the Communications Director with SecondStreet.org, a Canadian think tank.

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