Canada’s Crumbling Healthcare System — Is There Hope for Reform?

Photo by Stephen Andrews on Unsplash

Canada’s hospital system is overburdened due to an increasing geriatric population, staffing shortages, and an influx of respiratory diseases that have gotten worse since the rise of COVID-19. 

David Charoux, a third-year psychology student, reports being in an emergency room (ER), when he noticed “someone so tired that they were lying on the floor. [He] was an old man; no one said anything, no one noticed. It bothered me too much … I had to tell someone, then they moved him into a room where he could lie down.”

Zeljka Zorica, a third-year East Asian studies student encountered a similar situation in the emergency room. “I’ve personally waited over ten hours for an emergency in the waiting room before even being placed in a private room to be seen by a doctor,” Zorica says. 

This past month, two deaths have occurred in Nova Scotia due to lack of resources in hospital emergency rooms. Allison Holthoff, 37, passed away 12 hours after her arrival, while Charlene Snow, 67, passed at home after waiting seven hours for care and eventually giving up. Both families attribute the women’s deaths due to not receiving treatment in a timely manner in a CTVNews article earlier this month. 

A major contributing factor to Canada’s healthcare crisis is the alarming rate of burnout reported by healthcare professionals following the COVID-19 pandemic. As well, many cases that should be addressed earlier by a family physician are also finding their ways into ERs as a result of a shortage in family doctors. The situation is complicated further as many Canadian medical students who study abroad may not be legally allowed to practice here due to the rigorous and lengthy process they must go through in order to obtain a Canadian license. 

Recent data published by Health Quality Ontario (HQO) reveals that, on average, patients wait two hours to be first assessed by a physician in emergency departments and patients’ average length of stay for non-critical cases was about three hours. The report also states that 89 per cent of those categorized as “high-urgency patients,” consisting of cases such as overdoses and heart attacks, spent an entirety of eight hours during their visits. 

Amongst students, there seems to be a consensus that a division of severity of cases within the actual waiting area, after triage is completed, is needed. Hadia Imran, a third-year psychology student, thinks “there should be more in place to check up people with minor injuries and categorize them in terms of how severe each patient is.” 

Zorica agrees, stating they “would like to see a bit more organization in the waiting room. Maybe more separation of those injuries or problems that are critical versus minor.” 

Associate Professor at the School of Public Policy and Administration at York University, Daniel Cohn states that “health is only marginally determined by the healthcare you receive. Ill health is mainly caused by environmental, social, economic and political factors.” 

Cohn highlights that healthcare system reform will be a complex matter involving many different strategies at various levels of the system. “Big sweeping changes are driven top-down, and at that level, you cannot see the details that will cause problems in general, and most importantly, for the marginalized people who already face disadvantages in terms of ill health,” says Cohn. 

“Although we know clearly what we want out of our health system, getting to those goals will involve a bunch of little reforms, some of which will work and some which might have to be reversed,” Cohn adds. 

In his 2022 year-end interview, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau emphasized the importance of tackling health-care reform, stating that “it wouldn’t be the right thing to do to just throw more money at the problem and sit back and watch the problem not get fixed.” But as he also states, increasing funds is not the solution “unless the provinces commit to change.”

Cohn notes that “change has to be incremental and the result of a constant process of consultation and evaluation involving the personnel and stakeholders at all levels of the system — from the economists and policy-analysts in the bureaucracy at Queen’s Park down to the people who work on the frontlines and their patients”.

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By Atena Bazargan

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