The Urgent Obligation to Stabilize Canada’s Health Care System

Reuters

Paul-Émile Cloutier

January 5, 2022

[Excerpts] When the COVID-19 epidemic was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11th, 2020, Canadians – along with human beings across the world – processed the news within a frame of reference based on history. Our expectations were informed by our most recent experiences with the concept of contagion. Those included the 2003 SARS epidemic, which infected 8,000 people and killed 774 worldwide, 44 of them Canadian; and the Ebola outbreak centred in West Africa that peaked in 2014 before killing a total of 11,000 people. No Canadians were among them.

“We have never before seen a pandemic sparked by a coronavirus,” WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said when he first declared the pandemic that day in Geneva. “This is the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus.”

Nearly two years later, vaccines have mitigated the impact of this unprecedented coronavirus pandemic in terms of containment and mortality, but vaccine denial and mismanagement have kept the contagion alive. Those factors have enabled variants including Delta and Omicron to rationalize ongoing socioeconomic impacts with successive waves of isolation, quarantine and lockdown.

In tabling her annual report on December 13th, Dr. Theresa Tam, Chief Public Health Officer of the Public Health Agency of Canada, said: “There is a lack of a coherent public health system in Canada…Indeed, our publicly funded health care system is composed of a series of disjointed parts, separated by jurisdiction divides and plagued by ‘boom and bust’ cycles of public health spending where resources are scaled back.”

The next day, the federal government’s fiscal update was tabled. It included additional measures to help Canada respond to the Omicron variant, but the short-term focus of the spending meant that many of the health system vulnerabilities exposed by the pandemic have yet to be addressed. Canada’s health care system and those who work in it are in desperate need, as I pointed out in my response to the fiscal update as president of the group representing health care organizations and hospitals across Canada, adding: “Our political leaders must urgently come together to implement solutions to the challenges facing health care and health research.”

HealthCareCAN exhorts on behalf of Canadians our federal and provincial political leaders to urgently address the following, ideally and most practically with a First Ministers Conference in the first quarter of 2022.

A pan-Canadian health workforce planning strategy: The federal government must collaborate with the provinces and territories to identify, prioritize and establish a national strategy to address systemic health workforce shortages. This includes data gathering, benchmarking, research, interprovincial coordination of education and licensing, and so on to ensure Canada’s health workforce aligns with the needs of Canadians, addresses factors that contribute to stress, anxiety and burnout among health care workers, and improves diversity, representation and equity in the health system.

Strengthening health research and innovation: Canada’s health researchers and health research organizations have been invaluable in the fight against COVID-19. The important innovations and discoveries that have helped us get through the pandemic were built on decades of research.

Improving access and availability of mental health supports: The rising rate of burnout among Canadians and health care workers demands federal, provincial and territorial leadership and coordination. In addition to implementing a national health workforce planning strategy to better support our health care workers, governments must also develop a comprehensive approach to improve the availability and access to mental health services for all Canadians. 

Sufficient health transfers: We have learned that the Canada Health Transfer (CHT) will be $45.2 billion in 2022-23, far less than the approximately $70 billion sought by the provinces. 

National standards for pandemic health policy: Increased health transfers to provinces and territories are urgently needed to ensure consistent, long-term funding for public health and to eliminate inequities and gaps in our health care system. This investment must keep pace with costs, and ensure standardized, timely, and reliable data collection by developing a set of guiding principles across provincial/territorial jurisdictions, to help Canada respond to outbreaks now and in the future.

For months, HealthCareCAN has been stressing the importance of establishing a true national dialogue that would lead to fundamental reform of the health care system. After five successive waves of the pandemic, we can no longer accept the improvisation that continues to destabilize the health care system across the country. Canadians deserve better, and we have an obligation to deliver it.

Paul-Émile Cloutier is President and CEO of HealthCareCAN, the national voice of healthcare organizations and hospitals across Canada.

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