Canadians seeking health care have a 'wait problem'
By: Sally C. Pipes, Examiner Contributor- 6/3/09 5:58 PM
First of a two-part series
It's the start of what promises to be a beautiful spring day. But not for you. As the first rays of sunshine filter through your bedroom window, a searing pain settles into your head. You pop an aspirin after shuffling out of bed, drink plenty of water throughout the day, and head to bed early that evening.
But your head is still pounding the next morning. Perhaps it might be time to make an appointment to see your doctor. Unfortunately, as a lifelong resident of Canada, getting medical care is no simple task. Luckily, you generally don't have a problem seeing your general practitioner -- unlike some 17 percent of your compatriots who do not have a GP, or what Americans call a primary care doctor. But seeing a specialist in your native land is almost always a nightmare.
As you lie on the couch with an icepack on your head, you think back a couple years, when you had to wait nine months to see an orthopedic surgeon after hurting your knee playing hockey. The thought of all that waiting convinces you to put off your appointment at the doctor, just in case the problem goes away. After all, it's just a headache, right?But the pain doesn't subside. The headaches persist for a week, and now they're accompanied by occasional bouts of dizziness. Plus, you're having difficulty concentrating, which is affecting your work. Something's got to be wrong.
When you finally go to the doctor and describe your symptoms, he orders an MRI to make sure your headaches aren’t a sign of something serious, like a tumor. Of course, you won't learn the answer for quite awhile. Your doctor informs you that there's a ten-week wait for an MRI. Ten weeks of chronic headaches will be bad enough, you think, but not knowing what's wrong will be even worse because of the worry.
The doc attempts to lighten the mood by pointing out that you could have gone for an MRI in less than a week if you were a dog. Somehow that's not comforting.
Your doctor goes on to tell you that you'll have to wait another 19 weeks for a referral to a neurological specialist if the MRI reveals that something is wrong. "It's probably nothing," your doctor says, "so just relax and try to put it out of your mind."This proves impossible. The wait is so nerve-wracking -- and the headaches so bothersome -- that you do a little online research to see what might be ailing you. You visit a few expert websites and find out that the average survival rate for all forms of cancer is three to four percentage points higher in the United States than it is in Canada, thanks in part to Canada's long waiting lists.
With these statistics in mind, you can't help but consider the worst-case scenario -- a brain tumor. You remember when your neighbor had a benign tumor and had to go in for surgery. What if you end up having a malignant one? You begin to panic. A simple MRI takes 10 weeks, and you have to wait 19 weeks for an appointment with a specialist. All told, you'd likely wait about 32 weeks from the time of your appointment with your general practitioner for neurosurgery treatment! "What good is a single-payer healthcare system," you ask yourself, "if I have to wait eight months for brain surgery? If pets wait less than two days for an MRI and less than a week for an appointment with a specialist, perhaps I'd be better off as a dog!"You prepare to slog through the longest 10 weeks of your life, until your turn with the MRI machine comes.
After one month, you can't wait any longer. You decide to dip into your savings to pay for a private MRI. To your dismay, every healthcare facility you call turns you away (except those in Quebec because of a 2005 Canadian Supreme Court decision), claiming that it's against the law to sidestep the public health system to purchase certain procedures privately, like MRIs. No wonder you constantly hear of not just rich but middle-income Canadians and high-profile politicians heading south to the States to skip the line, get tests like these done privately, and pay out of pocket.
Well, now it's your turn. You head across the border to a private clinic in the United States. The money you had socked away for a family vacation is now destined for an MRI test and a motel in Cleveland.When your test results come back the following day, you finally receive some good news. There's nothing physically wrong with you. The doctor is confident that the headaches are the result of eyestrain and stress. He sends you home with a simple prescription: Take a break, and think about investing in a glare-reducing filter for your computer monitor. If you had known this several weeks earlier, you would have been spared a great deal of anguish. And you would have been able to afford that much-needed beach vacation. Unfortunately, Florida may have to wait until next year.
If you don’t like this scenario, it may just be what we will all face if the public insurance plan that President Obama and leading congressional Democratic politicians have been touting becomes a key pillar of health care reform legislation in America.
Just remember: Access to a waiting list is not access to health care.
Sally C. Pipes is President and CEO of the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is The Top Ten Myths of American Health Care.