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Physicians decry omission of health care from federal leaders’ debate topics

WATCH: A national lobby group for doctors is calling for a new way to deliver health care. Ross Lord explains how a better coordination among health professionals might be the solution.

Doctors and other health professionals are disheartened that health care is not among the five topics up for discussion on Monday evening at the first English-language federal leaders’ debate — despite it being a top issue for voters.

“It’s a must-have conversation,” said Dr. Gigi Osler, a Winnipeg-based surgeon and former president of the Canadian Medical Association (CMA). “Because the health care system isn’t going to fix itself.”

Patient advocate weighs in on health care and the 2019 federal election
Patient advocate weighs in on health care and the 2019 federal election

She’s one of many health advocates using the hashtag #voteforcare to draw attention to health-related issues on the federal campaign trail, something that has ramped up since the debate topics were announced. They include: 

  • affordability and economic insecurity,
  • environment and energy,
  • Indigenous issues,
  • leadership, in Canada and on the world stage, and 
  • polarization, human rights and immigration.
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Osler and other health providers swiftly expressed their disapproval that health care was left out.

“Nurses, doctors, every health care provider in this country is going to put health care on their agenda,” said Linda Silas, president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Union, which represents 200,000 nurses and nursing students. She made the comment in a video posted on Twitter alongside Osler.

In a letter sent to the Canadian Debate Production Partnership last week after the announcement of topics, the CMA called for the issue to be included in the debate, pointing to polls that suggest that more than half of those polled were dissatisfied with how health care is being addressed by the main political parties.

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Another recent Ipsos poll also found that health care is more of a concern for Canadians than any other election issue. 

In a response to the CMA letter, the Canadian Debate Production Partnership wrote that the debate topics were “necessarily pitched at a high level of generality to allow for flexibility in accommodating questions from our moderators and from the Canadian public.”

Further, there could be opportunity for discussion of health care within several sections of the English-language debate and the French-language debate, which is taking place on Oct. 10.

“The leadership category is meant to address, in part, how the candidates think about the federal role in areas of primarily provincial responsibility, such as health care,” the letter to the CMA continued. “There are many areas where we are confident healthcare will be raised in questions from Canadians, by the debate moderators, and by the party leaders themselves.”

READ MORE: There are stark disparities in access to mental health services across Canada

For Ivy Bourgeault, a professor in health policy at the University of Ottawa, the gaps and problems with Canada’s health care system cannot be ignored and are at a tipping point, especially amid the climate crisis. 

She said the system is plagued with wait times — “we are abhorrent at wait times” — and the federal government is not collecting the basic data required to help the system run more efficiently.

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Recent data from Statistics Canada also shows that nearly 5 million people in Canada are without primary care providers, something that takes a toll on peoples’ well-being and also increases costs to the system through a higher reliance on hospitals and wait times for health care needs better suited to a family doctor or nurse practitioner.

READ MORE: Where the major federal parties stand on health care

“We have to get activated about this. We have to not be polite Canadians waiting, ” Bourgeault said.

“People need to take the anger at their wait times and pitch that at the politicians because politicians follow the public, they do not lead.”

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Global News recently found stark disparities in wait times for mental health services across Canada, and patients have long been subjected to months-long wait times for all types of medical services, including surgeries. 

Further, she said that discussions around health being solely the responsibility of the provinces and territories is incorrect, and only lets federal leaders off the hook.

“It’s completely incorrect and disingenuous to say that health is a provincial jurisdiction,” she said. “The federal government has many roles in health care, it operates the fifth largest health care system, and they do so very poorly.”

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Federal Election 2019: Trudeau holds discussion on gun violence with health care professionals
Federal Election 2019: Trudeau holds discussion on gun violence with health care professionals

Bourgeault noted that while the health care sector is one of the top labour market sectors in the country, it’s also the sector that is subjected to very poor workforce planning. And it’s predominantly composed of women.

“This is a gender equity issue,” she said, adding much of the focus by federal leaders on the campaign trail is on the economy and infrastructure. “Every time we talk about infrastructure, it’s it’s always physical things, and it’s where men work. And health care is a care infrastructure and that is exactly what we need governments to care about.”

On top of that, the federal government does not track things like wait times or pertinent details about the health care workforce at a national level, something that Bourgeault says exacerbates the inefficiencies and gets in the way of making sound financial investments.

“We have to get the public really focused on this issue and we absolutely need to have this infrastructure for the climate crisis,” she said.

“Any anger people have about wait times should not be directed at the frontline workers, but squarely at the politicians because they can do something about it.”

Below: A real-time tally of the total usage of the official #CanadaDebates2019 hashtag

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