Canada has operated a system of socialized medicine since the early 1970s. During this period, the country has experienced a severe nationwide doctor shortage. For example, more than 1.5 million residents of Ontario (or 12 percent of that province’s population) cannot find family physicians who have time to accept any new patients. Some provinces actually hold lotteries where a few fortunate winners are granted access to medical care that they otherwise would be unable to obtain.
Between 1998 and 2008, approximately 11 percent of physicians who had been trained in Canadian medical schools relocated to the United States – mainly due to financial considerations. Because doctors’ salaries in Canada are negotiated, set, and paid for by provincial governments and are held down by cost-conscious budget analysts, the average Canadian doctor earns only 42 percent as much as his or her American counterpart.
Of Canada’s approximately 33 million people, at least 800,000 are currently on waiting lists for surgery and other necessary medical treatments. Between 1997 and 2006, the median wait time between a referral from a primary-care doctor for treatment by a specialist increased from 9 weeks to more than 18 weeks. A study entitled Waiting Your Turn: Hospital Waiting Lists in Canada, conducted by the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute, reports that Canadian health care patients must wait, on average, 17.7 weeks for admission to a hospital.
In a 1999 address to to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, Dr. Richard F. Davies, a cardiologist at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, described how delays in treatment affected heart patients scheduled for coronary artery bypass graft surgery. Specifically, Davies noted that in a single year, “71 Ontario patients died before [being able to undergo this] surgery, 121 were removed from the [waiting] list permanently because they had become medically unfit for surgery,” and 44 left the province to have the surgery performed elsewhere – usually in the United States.
In a May/June 2004 article in the journal Health Affairs, researcher Robert Blendon and colleagues reported that in Canada, the average wait time for a 65-year-old man requiring a routine hip replacement was more than six months. By contrast, 86 percent of American hospital administrators reported that the average wait time for such a procedure in the U.S. was less than three weeks.
Just as Canada’s restrictive policies against privatized health care alternatives have led to a reduction in the number of health professionals, government-imposed price controls have likewise caused a nationwide shortage of certain prescription medications and advanced medical equipment. Even after a new drug is certified by Health Canada, the federal department “responsible for helping Canadians maintain and improve their health,” it takes more than a year for that drug to actually reach the patients who need it. During 2004-2005, it took an average of 439 days for provinces to receive government reimbursement for drugs, forcing patients to wait a very long time for necessary medications.
In a July 2004 study, Fraser Institute researchers compared the health care systems of 28 industrialized countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). They found that while Canada spent more money on health care than any of the other countries in the sample, it ranked, on average, 24th in terms of such indicators as access to physicians, quality of medical equipment, and key health outcomes. Notably, before the government first took control of Canada's health care system in the early 1970s, the nation ranked second in terms of these same indicators.
In August 2006, Canadian doctors voted Brian Day president of their national association. A former socialist who counts Fidel Castro as a personal acquaintance, Day has nevertheless become perhaps the most vocal critic of Canadian public health care. He opened his own private surgery center as a remedy for the long waiting lists and then challenged the government to shut him down. “This is a country in which dogs can get a hip replacement in under a week,” Day fumed to the New York Times, “and in which humans can wait two to three years.”
Adapted from: "What Canada Tells Us About Government Health Care," by Doug Wilson (February 25, 2008); "Canada's Medical Nightmare," by Robert Cihak (September 1, 2004); and The Top Ten Myths of American Health Care, by Sally Pipes (Pacific Research Institute: 2008).