Commentary: Feds must maintain health care momentum in Fall economic statement

Creating meaningful, long-lasting change in our health system will require sustained funding with clear, measurable, and transparent results.

When over six million people lack a regular primary care provider and emergency departments are so overwhelmed many patients are giving up and leaving without receiving help, it is difficult for many Canadians to be optimistic about the future of our health system. A poll conducted in August showed that three-quarters of respondents did not expect meaningful improvements to health care anytime soon.

Despite the many challenges facing health care providers and their patients, I remain confident we can deliver the care Canadians deserve. With sustained focus, effort and collaboration, we can rebuild our health system to be more responsive, equitable and effective.

Federal, provincial and territorial health ministers recently committed to working together to transform our health system by fast-tracking credentialling for internationally trained health professionals, improving mobility for those already working here and modernizing health data.

These are excellent steps in the right direction, but much work remains.

As a family physician, I see how many systemic hurdles are preventing patients from getting the care they need, putting their health and wellbeing at risk. I am also acutely aware of the strain felt by health-care providers with maxed-out patient capacity across the country. We must do better.

We are days away from Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland announcing the federal government’s fall economic statement, and while critical issues like housing and affordability are appropriately top of mind as the budget planning cycle kicks off, we can’t lose sight of our beleaguered health system. We need to seize the moment to continue building a better health system for the future ¾ in strong partnership with between federal, provincial and territorial governments.

Creating meaningful, long-lasting change in our health system will require sustained funding with clear, measurable, and transparent results that Canadians can monitor to ensure we improve patient access; create healthier, safer working conditions for providers; and to bring the health system into the 21st century. The fact that a portion of federal health funding now requires provinces and territories to report on progress is encouraging and long overdue.

Stabilizing the health system now and in the future will also require integrated health human resources. A recent survey conducted on behalf of the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) shows that 87 per cent of Canadians agree that a long-term plan for the health workforce is vital. 

As part of that planning, we need to consider how health care workers are deployed across the country and remove barriers that prevent them from providing care when and where it’s needed, either virtually or in person. The commitment from Canada’s health ministers to establish pan-Canadian licensure for physicians, enabling them to provide care across jurisdictions, is a positive move supported by the vast majority of physicians and medical learners across the country.

Reducing the administrative burdens on front-line health care providers ¾ through a review of new and existing federal forms, as well as setting clear targets to reduce excessive paperwork that takes time away from patient care ¾ is critical as well. 

The CMA is also recommending that governments work to increase the percentage of Canadians with a regular primary care provider, the foundation of an effective health system, from 85 per cent to 90 per cent within five years, and to 95 per cent within 10 years.

A better health system means better care for all patients, including advancing reconciliation in Canada’s health system. The medical profession has been complicit in the many harms done to Indigenous Peoples, including the devastating impacts of Indian hospitals, forced medical experimentation on Indigenous Peoples, and systemic racism, neglect and abuse.

Finally, our health system should be climate resilient and environmentally sustainable. This will take ongoing investment in health infrastructure that can withstand the impacts of global warming and reduce greenhouse gas emissions produced by the health system itself.

At a time of renewed cooperation and focus among governments to fix our health system, we have a unique opportunity to scale up solutions and help shape a national response. We must maintain the collaborative momentum and do everything we can to restore Canadians’ trust in their health system. By working together and measuring progress in priority areas, we can build a health system we can all be proud of.

Dr. Kathleen Ross is a family physician in Coquitlam and New Westminster, B.C. and the president of the Canadian Medical Association.

This commentary was initially published in The Hill Times