Dear Editor

[Email to Cross Country Checkup]

January 17, 2001


On December 23, I presented myself at Toronto Western Hospital with a detached retina in my right eye. I was seen by a nurse practitioner within ten minutes, and soon by a doctor. Within two hours I was in the eye clinic. It was here that the rubber hit the road with a thud. I was horrified to find myself in a waiting room with several other people with the same condition as mine, who had been waiting for up to ten hours. I eventually found out that in Mike Harris's Ontario, during a holiday period, there is only one retinal surgeon on duty for eleven million people. It took me twenty hours to get into a bed. Although I should have been flat on my back with a detached retina, most of this time was spent sitting in waiting rooms. It was over fifty hours before I had "emergency" surgery, during which time I was not allowed to eat or drink. During this entire time I was also starved for information, continually told that the doctor would be available in "a few minutes" or "about two hours".

The problems in our health care system are both long term and short term. First of all, the system is not a system. It is run from the top down, and focused on disease rather than health. Our hospitals are run by doctors and bureaucrats, and not surprisingly, they are designed to serve the needs of doctors and bureaucrats. The nurses are serfs and the patients are cattle.

We should let the nurses run the hospitals.

The doctors guild is far too powerful. Now, I have tremendous respect for doctors. They are mostly extremely competent and hard-working. Some of my best friends are doctors. This does not change the fact that they are an enormously powerful elite, and, as a group, very conservative. Fundamental economic theory tells us that, if we wish to lower the cost of something, we must increase the supply. There is no shortage of qualified candidates to be doctors. We need to increase the number of spaces in medical school, and lower the cost of a medical education. That is the only way we will end the shortage of doctors.

The current crisis has been caused by short-sighted governments, pushed by debt and deficit and collapse of revenues. The politician's method of cutting costs is to take away the funding and say, "Deal with it." Not all of this can be pinned on Mike Harris. Every province in Canada, including the ones run by the NDP, is suffering a health care crisis. In 1995, the federal Liberal government slashed federal-provincial transfers by seven billion dollars, and now we are paying the price. Then there are the right wing ideologues who think the poor deserve to die.

It is important to remember that this is not somebody else's problem. Sooner or later, if we are lucky, we all end up in the hospital. This problem is coming to get you. When it does, will your tax cut buy you a new eye?

Don't get me wrong. I was eventually able to activate the services of a dedicated and competent team of professionals who saved my eye on Christmas day. It was the best Christmas present I have ever received, although not the most fun. I have nothing but gratitude and admiration for the doctors, nurses and other staff of Toronto Western Hospital. These harried and overworked heroes perform technically stunning surgery with a frequency and competence which makes it seem routine.

I shudder to think of the bills I would be facing if not for the Canada Health Act. A visit to the hospital may bring out our frustrations, but it is still there, as much as anywhere, that we are fortunate to be Canadians. Let's keep it that way.