Stopping the cuts to health care

SYLVAIN COMEAU | How can medical professionals -- and the patients under their care -- better cope with the repercussions of relentless health care cutbacks? Practitioners and non-practitioners weighed in with observations and solutions at a conference held recently at the Jewish General Hospital.

Dr. Samuel Benaroya, the Faculty of Medicine's associate dean of inter-hospital affairs, said that cutbacks have compounded a natural weakness in complex medical systems.

"In our increasingly fragmented health care system, we have lost the human touch. In today's labyrinth of care, patients don't often have someone to talk to, someone who will guide them through wherever they have to go. We have to address this fast, and real solutions will only come if we view the problem from the patients' perspective."

Benaroya advised colleagues to work together in sending out the message that health care must be protected from further cuts.

"There is a big difference between speaking out as an individual and speaking out as a profession. The result you get depends very much on how you make your voice heard; it is often more effective to speak as a group, gathering a critical mass of people with the same point of view."

There is a great deal of fear and uncertainty surrounding health care these days. Benaroya said that health care practitioners are in a unique position, thanks to their training, to tap into that fear and use it to bolster their efforts to safeguard the medical system.

"We are taught, in our profession, to translate the fear we have about death, dying and suffering into other feelings which enable us to act in our day-to-day lives without falling apart. Fear is usually channelled into positive and pro-active activity."

Stevie Cameron, the editor of Elm Street and an investigative journalist, stressed the importance of knowing your facts when you're about to lobby for change.

"You cannot do anything unless you really know what you are talking about. You have to have the relevant facts and figures at your fingertips. It's one thing to believe what you are saying in your gut; it is another to do your homework and have the information available to argue and fight for your point of view with accurate [data]."

Cameron suggested that hospital closures can be fought by uncovering ulterior motives behind the decisions.

"The question to ask is: who is making the money? When hospitals are developed, is there a land development issue? Always look at the value of the land underneath. If you want to know why something is happening, follow the money."

Dr. André Dascal, a professor of medicine and the associate director of microbiology laboratories at the Jewish General, said that more practitioners should follow the model set by HIV activists.

"The only way to succeed is to organize, with both professionals and patients. The power comes from the patient, not the professional. For example, thanks to activists, the care of HIV victims has changed the practice of medicine for the better since the 1980s. The demands -- not requests, demands -- of the activists have largely been met."

Dascal said that much of the public doesn't appreciate the toll the cuts have taken on hospitals.

"Only a small number of people face catastrophic illness and feel the effects of the cuts far more than the general population. We need to educate the general population about the minority who are suffering the most."

Linda McQuaig, the author of Shooting the Hippo and The Cult of Impotence, recent best-sellers that criticize Canada's shift to right-of-centre government policies, also spoke.

She argued that broad cutbacks to the health care system are "potentially something that affects all of us, very profoundly. The question is whether the public believes the government's claims that the cuts have been managed painlessly.

"When detailed polls are conducted on health care issues, it becomes very clear how much Canadians want a strong health care system, but people have been convinced that these things are no longer possible.

"I think the public has bought the argument that there is no alternative, because the cuts were placed in the context of the battle against the debt and deficit. The government claims that we simply can't afford [the status quo] anymore, which was never true, and is especially untrue now that we are running federal surpluses."

The conference was the 21st annual Faye Fox Educational Day, and was presented by the Jewish General Hospital's Department of Nursing.