In August, the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) released the 11th Annual National Report Card on Health Care at its annual meeting in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. At the invitation of the CMA, I attended this meeting in my role as Chair of the Best Medicines Coalition. The report card combines results of two surveys recently conducted with 2,026 randomly selected Canadians; an online survey canvassed 1,026, who rated various aspects of the healthcare system using a letter grade, and a telephone survey canvassed 1,000 who answered various questions. The results clearly show what patients are looking for: a healthcare system that is more accountable.

Canadians want a patient health charter that outlines patient rights and responsibilities, believing this would lead to improved health services. The majority of the population also wants to see a national healthcare system, with equal treatment for every citizen, regardless of where in the country someone lives. Essentially, Canadians are looking for a healthcare system that revolves more around the patient, ensuring each individual gets the care he or she needs.

What’s interesting about the patient perspective is that it’s shared by physicians. “We’ve been hearing for months now that Canadians expect their governments to take action on healthcare,” said Dr. Jeff Turnbull, the outgoing CMA president. “We have seen a slow and steady decline in what we would all now agree is a deeply troubled healthcare system. To be clear, this pillar of Canadian society is eroding. … We are losing something of great value. It’s slipping away slowly, incrementally.”

The report card shows that Canadians’ favourable opinions on the healthcare system overall are declining; 70% of the survey responders rated the healthcare system as an A or a B, down 5% from the year before, and 97% of Canadians think the federal and provincial governments need to work together.

Also shown in the report card is that many individuals are very displeased with the quality of healthcare available to them. A resounding 87% agree that a new patient charter should contain a complaint mechanism to improve accountability to patients, and almost as many (86%) agree that the charter should establish an independent ombudsman. One in three Canadians either has personally (or has a family member who has) received such poor healthcare services to the extent that they would have requested treatment from another healthcare provider or complained to an independent ombudsman, if one were available.

In addition, the number of individuals who are pleased enough with their specialists to give them an A rating has been declining 1% per year since 2008, and is currently at 17%. Physicians agree that one way to address inequality in healthcare delivery is to ensure all Canadians have access to a basic level of prescription drug coverage, a glaring failure of our current system. We need to leave behind the illness-care system designed in the 1950s and design a uniquely Canadian healthcare system that emphasizes chronic disease management and prevention initiatives.

Another startling statistic is the number of patients that have little or no access to a general practitioner; 22% of respondents gave “access to a family doctor” a C grade, and 20% rated this service as deserving an F.

“Patients are too often lost in the shuffle in healthcare,” Dr. Turnbull said. “Canadians want their territorial, provincial and federal governments to get together and create a system that revolves around the patient, rather than the other way around, and they favour practical steps that can move us forward in that direction.”

Showing that his heart is with patients, incoming CMA president, Dr. John Haggie, said in his inaugural address, “Physicians do make a difference when they become involved. That is an evidence-based statement. It is hard sometimes after a difficult day or week at work, but if you think we have problems, then consider the view from the patient’s perspective.”

Hearing statements such as these during the CMA meeting, I felt hopeful that when we work together, we can make credible solutions for a sustainable healthcare system that will meet the needs of Canadian patients.

“This is the time when we, the medical profession, need to demonstrate leadership,” added Dr. Haggie. “We need to offer solutions to help craft an enduring and robust system, one that is sustainable, of high quality, and accessible to all Canadians. That is what will bring comfort and confidence in our system for patients and for our political leaders.”

As the CEO of the GI Society and the Chair of the Best Medicines Coalition, I will continue to advocate for GI patients in jurisdictions across the country. This fight includes timely access to physicians, hospitals, pharmaceuticals, and all modern healthcare options. I look forward to continuing to work with Canadian physicians in this effort.

Gail Attara, CEO, GI Society
First published in the Inside Tract® newsletter issue 179 – 2011