Canadians open to health care changes

Per a recent study conducted by Leger on behalf of Second Street, two-thirds of Canadians are in favour of provincial governments hiring private clinics for surgeries to reduce wait times. Photo credit: LCM Architects 


For decades, the prevailing wisdom has been that most Canadians are quite satisfied with the state of our health care system, many believe it is “the best in the world” and the majority strenuously resist any major structural changes in the current public sector health care environment. Most politicians and many doctors and other health care providers profess to be staunch defenders of the current system, secure in the belief that they are reflecting the views of most Canadians. 

However, a recent poll commissioned by Second Street calls into question these assumptions and suggests that Canadians are actually much more receptive to significant changes in the system than previously believed.  

The poll was conducted by Leger in the latter part of November 2021, and a key finding was that 67 per cent of respondents supported provincial governments hiring private clinics for surgeries and other procedures as a means of reducing waiting lists. This has been done during the pandemic to a greater degree than previously, as waiting lists have significantly worsened. But long waiting lists were a regular feature of Canadian health care prior to the pandemic, so this practice makes sense at any time, not just during a crisis. Support for this practice was strong across all provinces, from a low of 63 per cent in Ontario to a high of 73 per cent in Manitoba/Saskatchewan.  

The poll also found strong support – 62 per cent – for permitting individuals to purchase health care services at private clinics. This represented a significant increase from a previous poll of Second Street’s conducted in early 2020, which showed support of 51 per cent. Support for this option was especially high in BC at 71 per cent, perhaps because this issue has had a high profile in that province as a result of a number of recent court proceedings on the matter, in which the provincial government has consistently fought against permitting individuals the freedom to choose their own health care services outside of the public system.  

A final poll question solicited views on governments undertaking a much more transparent system of tracking health care outcomes and regularly reporting on them. Fully 79 per cent of respondents supported an annual report including actual wait times for various procedures as compared to recommended maximum wait times, and patient outcomes including deaths, with all data reported anonymously in aggregate. Some of this information has been more comprehensively available because of the pandemic, but a permanent mechanism should be put in place so that the health care system is more accountable and transparent to Canadians. 

Major problems with Canada’s health care system, such as long waiting lists for procedures and tests, a dearth of family doctors, shortages of hospital beds, and a lack of sufficient key infrastructure, have been a reality for decades before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. International comparisons of health care systems have for years demonstrated that the Canadian system ranks poorly in terms of health outcomes while being one of the costliest per capita in the world. 

The best systems internationally are characterized by a combination of public and private sector health care providers, within the framework of a single payer system. The pandemic served to shine a harsh spotlight like never before on the many shortcomings of Canada’s health care system, which has apparently increased Canadians’ willingness to consider change.  

Increasingly, the only defenders of the current system are self-interested insiders such as the public sector unions involved, who would lose their ability to hold taxpayers to ransom if faced with competitors, and the politicians they support.  

It is unfortunate that a disastrous event such as a serious pandemic had to be the catalyst to encourage Canadians to support change, but it often does take a crisis to shock people out of complacency and endorse uncomfortable but necessary change. If the pandemic spurs positive long-term change in Canada’s health care system, there may be a silver lining to the COVID dark cloud. A strong majority of Canadians are now on side – will politicians have the courage to follow? 

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