In institutions across Canada, desperately needed facility updates and renovations are being deferred because all funding must go to meeting demand for services.
It is a reality of political life in Canada that health care, ironically, is the biggest issue for voters, yet rarely generates viral campaign moments. As a group that advocates for Canadian health-care organizations and hospitals, HealthCareCAN found the gap between the level of concern about health care among Canadians and the amount of attention paid to it on the campaign trail and in debates to be extremely worrisome.
But sometimes, in politics as in sports, Cinderella stories do happen. The Oct. 21 election produced a minority government, which history has shown can be very good for Canadian health care.
In 1966, under then-Liberal prime minister Lester Pearson and the moral suasion of then NDP-leader Tommy Douglas—famously chosen, over hockey greats and statesmen, as history’s greatest Canadian in a CBC poll for his role as the father of Medicare—Parliament passed the landmark Medical Care Act, which established the country’s publicly funded health-care system.
In Canada’s 43rd Parliament the Liberal Party’s commitment to a social safety net will be leveraged by the NDP’s foundational role as champion of universal health care and Canadians’ biggest concern—health care—will compete with other compelling priorities, including climate change and economic concerns. While the promise of a national pharmacare program has been the focus of much of the recent discussion on health-care reform, universal drug coverage cannot be a substitute for the urgent investment needed in Canada’s health-care infrastructure, innovation, and research.
As David Naylor, chair of the advisory panel on federal support for scientific research, which tabled its report in 2017, has put it, Canada’s system “isn’t in crisis so much as in stasis.” We have a reservoir of human capital in our hospitals, clinics, universities, private laboratories, and public health agencies that is second to none worldwide. But that exceptional human capital has been compensating—albeit ingeniously—for aging infrastructure, inefficient innovation funding, and inadequate research investment.
In institutions across Canada, desperately needed facility updates and renovations are being deferred because all funding must go to meeting demand for services. Providing the highest-quality patient care will always be paramount for Canadian health institutions, but our doctors and nurses cannot maximize the benefits of new technology in facilities built before the invention of the pacemaker. Our brightest visionaries will not develop that technology in Canada if our innovation funding regime discriminates against front-line practitioners. Our researchers will continue to win Nobel Prizes at universities outside Canada and be lured abroad to produce breakthroughs in cancer, diabetes, autism, and other crucial research that improves outcomes for millions of people if we do not better target our investments.
Health is much, much more than a cost centre. The sector is a significant driver of Canada’s economy, generating more than 10 per cent of the country’s GDP annually and supporting more than two million jobs, according to the Conference Board of Canada.
For the first time in human history, digital connectivity makes the real-time sharing of knowledge and information, interdisciplinary collaboration and the adoption of best practices across institutional and geographical boundaries more than just aspirational. Canada can be a global health innovation leader by harnessing technology and data platforms in the delivery of health care.
None of this can be accomplished unless Ottawa levels the playing field and opens the competition for federal research, innovation, and infrastructure funding programs to hospitals and research institutes, as recommended by the House Finance Committee in 2018.
In 2017, the Trudeau government announced a laudable investment of $11-billion over 10 years to provinces and territories specifically targeted for improvements in home and community care and mental health and addiction services, administered through bilateral agreements. Ottawa also allocated $544-million over five years to federal and pan-Canadian health organizations to support health innovation and pharmaceutical initiatives.
But at a time when 40 per cent of all provincial spending is taken up by health care, the federal government must do more to help health institutions, including hospitals and health research institutes, evolve to meet the needs of Canada’s growing and aging population.
With a new federal health minister being sworn in on Nov. 20 and, when the new Parliament convenes, a speech from the throne, followed by the minority government’s first budget, Canada’s new political reality presents a series of opportunities for Ottawa to respond to the results of this election with productive collaboration rather than division.