Health care gets personal

Most Canadians perceive general flaws in the country’s health care system, but report positive individual experiences. Until recently, I counted myself among those who held this idea: I knew there were gaps in the system, but had always received excellent care. I strongly believed that despite these gaps, Canada’s public system was effective and fair, and that even a two-tiered option would seriously undermine its workings. However, after two negative experiences in recent months, for myself and for a close family member, my perceptions are changing. When the systemic issues are no longer simply numbers on paper, but affect someone you love, it becomes much more difficult to support that which caused them.

In both cases, the problem was not caused by a lack of intellect on the part of individual doctors and nurses. Instead, the cause was systemic: too few staff taking care of too many patients, and facing serious organizational defects. Regardless of where you stand on the merits of single-payer healthcare systems, the reality for Canadians seeking medical care is that the country’s health care system is over-extended, in terms of staff, resources, and finances.

This problem will only grow as our parents’ generation ages, putting what some say will be terminal stress on the system. Put simply, the balance sheet isn’t going to balance. In order to continue operating efficient, effective healthcare systems, taxes will have to be raised or the government will have to divert funds from other areas, including education—which has already begun.

While disaster is still impending, my recent experiences laid bare the existing strains faced by health care workers, and how these budget and staffing issues can have negative consequences on the hospital floor. To optimize your treatment and overall experience, there’s one clear strategy: advocate for yourself.

This doesn’t mean reading about a collection of symptoms on the Internet and insisting on your own self-diagnosis. Instead, it means never being afraid, embarrassed, or at all hesitant to ask questions. Ask about timelines, recovery information, pharmaceutical details, additional costs, and anything else you might be wondering about. This is especially important if you are dealing with multiple doctors or therapists. Get engaged in your diagnosis and treatment so you’re aware of what’s happening to your body. This also has the potential to augment the quality of care you receive.

Also, don’t always follow a “don’t call us, we’ll call you” rule. Hospitals, especially large ones in cities, process hundreds of lab samples each day. Some get lost in the shuffle. If you’re still sick or are even just nervous, make the call.

In the case of more serious illnesses or injuries, it may help to consider obtaining the services of a professional health care advocate. Recently, numerous private businesses had emerged across the country that offer to act as a patient’s advocate as they navigate the sometimes byzantine health care system and accompanying bureaucracy. These professional advocates are usually trained doctors, nurses and therapists familiar with the inner workings and flaws of Canada’s medical system. While these services do require a fee, it’s still cheaper than seeking private care across the border.

As the health care system, one of our country’s sacred cows, starts to disintegrate, more and more patients will be individually affected by the on-the-ground realities of budget shortfalls. For individuals using the system, the most effective means to protect yourself is to be your own advocate, or find someone to advocate for you. That being said, as I saw in Montreal recently, even the best advocate is of little use if you can’t even get in the door.

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