Canadian vs. American Health Care

April 16, 2011

Gerry Nichols is a political consultant and writer. In an Ottawa Citizen opinion piece “My Open Letter to Ignatieff” (April 14, 2011), he writes that “we can both take pride in the fact that ailing Canadians have access to places where they can receive timely and excellent medical services. Unfortunately, those places are in the United States.”

In his letter, Mr. Nichols focuses on two important, but largely irrelevant issues when comparing publicly funded health care in Canada and private, for profit health care in the United States, i.e., availability of family doctors and emergency rooms wait times. The US has similar problems; and there, your difficulties in finding a family physician and getting care when you need it rises exponentially depending on your insurance coverage, if any.

In January, my wife was diagnosed with cancer in both lungs. The respirologist (a medical specialist who deals in diseases of the lungs and the respiratory tract) after viewing X-rays, and the result of a biopsy on the right lung, told her that the cancer was probably in stage four, it’s final stage (there are actually five stages of lung cancer, with 0 being stage 1, go figure). She might have only six months to live.

With what was believed to be cancerous lesions in both lungs, surgery was out of the question. Only radiation therapy could extend her life, and she was referred to a radiologist at the Ottawa General Hospital.

The old Nigerian-born doctor took one look at the X-rays and decided something was not right. He ordered another biopsy before scheduling radiation treatment. The result of the second biopsy revealed not cancer but a deadly bacterium feasting on her left lung. If left untreated, it would kill her faster than the cancer in her right lung. Radiation on the bacterium would have had the opposite effect it has on cancerous cells; it could have caused the bacterial colony to grow and expand in spectacular fashion.

A handful of specialists were involved in my wife’s treatment. At no time did any of these highly trained doctors have to get the approval from an insurance company nurse, which is routine in the United States, before authorizing the necessary tests and life-saving treatments.

In the United States, it is not inconceivable that the radiologist who wanted a second biopsy to confirm the respirologist’s diagnosis would have been denied by the insurance company nurse, with disastrous consequences.

It has been three months now and five courses of radiation therapy. A PET scan has revealed that no cancer cells have left the lung, as was feared. As to the bacterium, she will have to take drugs every day for 18 months; drugs that she will also receive free of charge thanks to Tommy Douglas. 

If we had been in the United States, chances are we would be facing bankruptcy and my wife counting the days to her last breath. And, this is the private system that Mr. Nichols praises as being superior to Canada’s government funded and administered health care. I don’t think so.

Don’t believe Conservative rhetoric that a system where your level of care and life-expectancy is a function of your wealth is an improvement over what we have.

Bernard Payeur