Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 4/3/2004 (5701 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Canadians are still proud of medicare, but every day brings shocks to our confidence. Stories about waiting lists and doctor shortages compete with those about adverse drug reactions. Was medicare a mistake?
In fact, medicare was the right road to take and Canadians are renewing medicare with innovation.
Up until the late 1950s, Canadians and Americans had similar systems and similar health. Now the U.S. spends over 14 per cent of their economy on health while we spend less than 10 per cent. Half of this difference is due to higher overhead in the U.S. private system. Canadians get fewer MRI scans and heart operations but we get more bone marrow transplants, doctors' visits and prescription drugs, as well as more care in hospitals and nursing homes. Canadian life expectancy is now 2 1/2 years longer and our infant mortality rate is 30-per-cent lower. Finally, medicare gives our manufacturers a $6 per hour per employee advantage over their American competitors.
Canadians first started to debate medicare a hundred years ago, when our main health problems were acute illnesses like diphtheria and tuberculosis. But as we implemented medicare, starting in Saskatchewan in 1947, Canada changed from a young country with mainly acute illness to an aging country where the main health problems are chronic illnesses like diabetes and mental illness.
Unfortunately, our health system was built to provide care for acute illness. Canada provides world-class care for heart attacks and car accidents,but too many chronic illnesses fester without proper follow-up. Former Saskatchewan premier and father of medicare, Tommy Douglas, always claimed that implementing public insurance would be relatively easy compared with the more difficult problem of reorganizing the health-delivery system. In a speech in Montreal in 1982, he bemoaned, "We have a health delivery system that is lamentably out of date."
Most health-care stories seem to concern money. Sometimes it is stated simultaneously that "health costs are spiralling out of control" and that "our health-care system is dangerously underfunded." In fact, costs are not excessive, but neither is the system drastically underfunded. The main issues concern management rather than money. Costs have increased in the last five years, but this followed five years of restraint. Canada actually spends slightly less of its GDP on health care now than it did in 1992. On the other hand, if we need more money for public coverage of drugs or to catalyze reform, the federal government is flush. The federal government is running a surplus of $8 billion even though the Liberals have cut the federal government by one-third since 1993. All told, the federal and provincial governments have cut taxes collectively to the tune of $50 billion per year, enough to pay for universal home care, long-term care, pharmacare — and double the budget for the military.
A main theme of Prescription for Excellence is that we don't need to spend a lot more on health care to give Canadians a much more effective system. But it is patently false to claim that governments are broke and that Canadians must wait indefinitely for the fulfillment of the promises the Liberals made in the last three election campaigns.
Despite the media's voracious appetite for health-care stories, too many are spun by politics. Between the high-powered misinformation generated by Canadian free-marketers and the media-savvy pressure tactics from health care's powerful interest groups there's very little room for good news stories about medicare's modernization. In fact, there are inexpensive solutions to medicare's problems. They have been developed somewhere across this great country by the hundreds of thousands of Canadians who work in health care.
We have a health system which is poorly designed to manage chronic illness and frailty. As a result, too many hospital patients should actually get care elsewhere, too many chronic-disease patients develop preventable complications, and too many people develop illnesses which are totally preventable. At the beginning of medicare, patients with complicated problems were admitted to hospital for tests and consultations. Now, these patients often face an endless series of waits and delays to get the care they need. Finally, double-digit inflation threatens public and private drug plans.
Across the country, approximately 10 per cent of hospital patients are waiting for a bed in a long-term care institution and another 10-20 per cent could leave hospital if there were appropriate home-care services for them. Calgary's comprehensive palliative care services enable people to die in comfort, out of hospital — fewer than 40 per cent of cancer patients die in hospital compared with 70 per cent in the rest of Canada. Victoria pioneered the 'Quick Response Team' or QRT program in the late 1980s, ensuring that ER patients get the care they need to safely go home. In Saskatoon, better home care means that less than one per cent of hospital beds have nursing-home patients.
As we have become more successful in treating acute manifestations of heart disease like heart attacks, the number of patients with end-stage disease or congestive heart failure (CHF) has soared. Because it is tricky to manage, approximately 20-25 per cent of patients with CHF are re-admitted to hospital within a month of discharge. In Sault Ste. Marie, the Group Health Centre ensures that a home-care nurse sees every CHF patient, reducing readmissions by 60 per cent.
Another example: the Northwest Territories developed a diabetic program where public health nurses ensure comprehensive followup. As a result, no diabetic has ever lost their kidneys due to complications of the disease.
Most diseases are preventable. With what we know now, we could prevent moe than 80 per cent of the cases of heart disease, diabetes, lung cancer and chronic lung disease, freeing up more than 6,000 hospital beds. As in other aboriginal communities, diabetes rates have soared in the Kahnewake reserve south of Montreal. However, the community's school diabetes prevention project may have stabilized the disease in that community. Vancouver has stabilized the epidemic of HIV in intravenous drug users in the troubled downtown eastside neighbourhood.
Many Canadians lack family doctors and many have to wait months to get tests or see specialists. However, Canada actually has more physicians than ever. Better teamwork is the key to access. In southwestern Saskatchewan, one physician working in a team with three nurse practitioners looks after 3,200 patients, more than twice the Canadian average. In Hamilton, teams of mental-health counsellors, family doctors and psychiatrists have increased the numbers of patients treated for mental-health problems by 900 per cent while decreasing referrals to the regional psychiatry clinic by 70 per cent. In Sault Ste. Marie, a task force reduced the time from mammogram to breast-cancer diagnosis from 107 to 18 days.
Canada's bill for prescription drugs continues to escalate at more than 10 per cent a year. But far too many patients take drugs they shouldn't, and others take expensive new drugs when older, cheaper ones would work as well or better. A number of non-drug therapies show great potential to reduce our reliance on pharmaceuticals. Cognitive behavioural therapy (a brief 'talking therapy') effectively treats pain, anxiety and mild to moderate depression. Acupuncture provides excellent pain control and improves cardiorespiratory fitness.
Better teamwork between doctors and pharmacists can greatly improve the quality of prescribing. In North Vancouver, a program where a pharmacist provides education to doctors in their offices saves two dollars for each dollar it costs. British Columbia's reference drug program substitutes cheaper but as effective older drugs for new drugs, and is estimated to save nearly $50 million per year.
We can implement all of these innovations without private finance or for-profit delivery. In fact, private-sector solutions tend to increase costs while decreasing quality.
Medicare is at a crossroads. The right shrieks privatization while the left pleads for a lot more money. Most Canadians oppose market solutions, but we understandably balk at continuing to pump public dollars into what sometimes seems a bottomless pit.
I maintain that we can solve medicare's apparently intractable problems with innovation. Let's speed up medicare's renewal by spreading the best practices as quickly as possible. As our problems wane, so will the demand that we change the basic values upon which medicare was founded.
It's not too late to save medicare. It's not too early to pitch in to help. Let's take our final direction again from Tommy Douglas: "Courage my friends. 'Tis not too late to make a better world."