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One Lucky Canadian

Today an elderly physician friend of mine woke up with some very mild abdominal pain. He is a stoic man, and never complains about anything – not even the pain associated with a dislocated/shattered hip and multiple bone fractures from a car accident (he was very nonchalant about that event 2 years ago).

So when I heard that he was going to see a doctor about his belly pain – I knew that something serious was afoot. His doctor ordered an abdominal x-ray series, noted a tumor, and sent him to the O.R. within the hour.

In the O.R. the surgeons found a perforated colon (it must have ruptured minutes to an hour or two prior) without signs of peritonitis. There was a cancerous mass (without metastases) that they were able to remove completely. They washed his peritoneal cavity extensively to remove all fecal matter and potential cancer cells and transferred him to the ICU for observation overnight and IV antibiotics.

So far it seems that my friend will make a full recovery – and there is no evidence of remaining cancer, though we’ll need to be vigilant with follow up.

I can’t get over how lucky he was to have discovered the perforated colon within hours of it occurring, that the surgeons took care of him immediately, and that the cancer seems to have been contained and removed. I don’t know if his “luck” was partially due to his physician’s intuition about his own body, professional courtesy extended to him by peers, or that the Canadian healthcare system is not as burdened in his part of the country (Nova Scotia) as it is in others where there may be longer wait times.

All I can say is that my friend is one lucky Canadian!

Counter Point: American Healthcare Is Not The Best In The World

Let’s get honest, OK? America does not have the best health care in the world. Europeans and Canadians are not flocking to our borders to get to our health care. It is time we realize that we can learn from our neighbors and we don’t have to claim we are the “best” at everything. It makes us look really stupid in the eyes of the world.

Here are some facts. We do spend the most money on health care in the world. We do spend the highest percentage of Gross National Product (GDP) on health care and we do spend more dollars per capita than any other country on Earth.

The claim that the United States has the best health care in the world has been proven false by every broad metric used. The World Health Organization and the nonpartisan Commonwealth Fund rankings rate the U.S. last of the Western industrialized countries. The WHO ranks us 37th of all measured countries.

The Commonwealth Fund says, “Among the six nations studied—Australia, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States—the U.S. ranks last, as it did in the 2006 and 2004. Most troubling, the U.S. fails to achieve better health outcomes than the other countries, and as shown in the earlier editions, the U.S. is last on dimensions of access, patient safety, efficiency, and equity. The 2007 edition includes data from the six countries and incorporates patients’ and physicians’ survey results on care experiences and ratings on various dimensions of care.”

The U.S. also lags in information technology. (We have been awaiting a robust electronic medical record for 10 years) and in coordination of care and in measured quality outcomes.

One of the ways we improve in health care is when we face the brutal truth. How can you make improvements if you don’t know where you are starting from? If you truly believe you are the best in the world…there would be no need for health care reform.

Perhaps that is why these myths and lies are being propagated.

*This blog post was originally published at EverythingHealth*

Canadians Are Turning To Market-Based Healthcare Solutions

Many Americans look to Canada, as an example of a government-run health care system that works.

But is that really what it is?

Health care in Canada is funded mostly publicly, but is provided mostly privately.  That is, most care is delivered by privately run hospitals and medical clinics, with fees paid for by the various provincial governments.

Americans often call this system “single payer,” but it’s really not true.  There are many other payers.

For example, if you’re injured on the job, your care is paid by a workers compensation insurance plan funded by employer premiums.  Millions of  Canadians also have supplementary health insurance policies, typically called “extended health care” coverage, which cover things not paid for by the government, like prescription drugs and other medical services.  There is also a growing market for full medical insurance plans, and critical illness plans to provide cash to offset the out of pocket burdens of medical cost.  As much as 30% of Canadian health care expenses are funded through these non-government payers.

However paid for, supply (and funding) for health care has not been able to keep up with increasing demand.  The result has been well-documented: long waits for health care services.  Waiting is a normal part of the Canadian health care experience, with provincial governments publishing  information on wait times and working to fix them.  The Canadian Supreme Court admonished the provincial governments in 2005, saying “access to a wait list is not access to health care.”

And so an interesting dynamic has emerged.

Canadians are justifiably proud of their extraordinary health care system, and care deeply about preserving its core principles.  But they also care deeply about looking after each other, and are as creative and innovative as any people on the planet.  As wait times have grown, so has a burgeoning private market.

Hospitals running diagnostic imaging equipment like MRIs are only paid by the government to run during certain hours of the day.  So creative hospitals decided to run the same machines during the overnight hours, charging patients (rather than the government) a fee for the service, which could be provided on an expedited basis.  While politically controversial, it made it possible to serve more patients without the need for additional government funding.

These types of ideas have grown, extending now to stand-alone diagnostic centers.  A couple of days ago, I visited one, Mayfair Diagnostics, in Calgary.  This center was created by a group of physicians, who, like others I have met, knew they couldn’t change the system, but could improve the part in which they work.  So they bought leading imaging equipment and opened up centers that cater to self-pay patients, as well as those funded through other sources.  They actively promote themselves as a way to get needed medical insight only a couple of days – as opposed to the 6-8 week average wait patients would otherwise face.  Doctors working in this center also work in hospitals serving government-sponsored patients, making the Mayfair center and others like it a supplement to the government system.  And at a price of $650 for an MRI, it’s inexpensive by U.S. standards.

Other kinds of private centers have opened up as well.  Some operate almost as membership-only medical practices, offering much of what might be considered primary care.  Others provide even more comprehensive services, making most aspects of ambulatory care available on a privately-paid basis.  For certain specialties like orthopedics, some even offer complete hospital surgical services.

The Canadian system remains very different from the American one.  Canadians do not want their system transformed into anything that reflects American “rugged individualism.”  And yet the natural human desire to look after oneself and ones family poses dilemmas.  When a loved one is sick, all the abstract ideas melt away, and you think – how can I do everything I can to get help, now.

We’re all entitled to that kind of help — Americans, Canadians, whatever.

The ways Canadians are trying to make sure everyone gets that help are slowly changing the face of Canadian health care.

*This blog post was originally published at See First Blog*

Wait Times And Rationing Care In Canada

You may think all is well in Canada. A land where FREE=MORE has been granted a birth right. It has been said many times before: You have three endpoints for which to strive for. Cheap, Quality or Quick. Pick any two. You can not have all three. It seems that Canada has decided to sacrifice Quick. You can always guarantee cheap health care. You simply stop paying for it. That’s called rationing. Getting in line and waiting is a classic form of rationing used by governments all across this land of ours.

In fact, as a resident in training at a VA facility, I saw first hand how rationing of care occurred using waiting as the tool of choice. Schedules blocked at 5-8 patients. Leaving when the clock struck 4. Scheduling dead patients. Yes folks, that actually happened. As an inpatient, technologists would finish their day on their terms. Getting studies after hours was impossible. Patients would wait for days to get an echo or a doppler. I once had an xray technologist refuse to come in, from home, in the middle of the night to take a chest xray on a crashing ventilator patient. The fact that the VA would not staff an overnight xray technologist was simply ridiculous. Try to get anything done on a holiday. Not only impossible but the hoops one had to travel through to attempt it would make Obama cry if he had any idea what the government run care was doing to his Vets.

Wait times is rationing, no matter how you look at it. You can find the link to the Fraser Institute on Canada’s Wait times here at Dr Hal Dall’s blog. I want to thank him for pointing it out. It is a fascinating look into the discrepancies in Canada’s health care, in spite of the equality for all mantra of social solidarity. Here is an excerpt from the research.

Finally, the promise of the Canadian health care system is not being realized. On the contrary, a profusion of research reveals that cardiovascular surgery queues are routinely jumped by the famous and politically-connected, that suburban and rural residents confront barriers to access not encountered by their urban counterparts, and that low-income Canadians have less access to specialists, particularly cardiovascular ones, are less likely to utilize diagnostic imaging, and have lower cardiovascular and cancer survival rates than their higher-income neighbours. This grim portrait is the legacy of a medical system offering low expectations cloaked in lofty rhetoric. Indeed, under the current regime—first-dollar coverage with use limited by waiting, and crucial medical resources priced and allocated by governments— prospects for improvement are dim. Only substantial reform of that regime is likely to alleviate the medical system’s most curable disease—waiting times that are consistently and significantly longer than physicians feel is clinically reasonable.

*This blog post was originally published at A Happy Hospitalist*

The Canadian Health Care System: Just Like Ours

Why paying for health care is so difficult:

a gigantic, complex raft of billing codes which are seemingly designed to haunt you in your sleep. With thousands of codes, and with frequent revisions to the fee schedule, it’s difficult to imagine a bureaucratic system. . . more challenging to decipher.

American health care?  No, Canadian.

Some problems are inherent to health care, regardless of who pays for it.

*This blog post was originally published at See First Blog*

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