Cancer Patients Face a Health System in Crisis

“Since the pandemic’s start, we’ve worried about the health system’s dramatic collapse but, like my dying patients, we’re witnessing a slower death; a system imperceptibly degrading until one day, like a cancer-riddled body, it just stops working entirely.”

Dr. Gabriel Fabreau

Doctors, nurses and patient advocates in both Canada and the US are sounding the alarm that after two years of COVID-19, our hospitals have never been worse off. This incredibly disturbing description of the health care system is from a recent opinion piece in my local newspaper. The piece was written by Dr. Gabriel Fabreau, a general internist and an assistant professor at the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the University of Calgary. Fabreau argues that the quality of care in Alberta is degrading, increasingly unsafe and often without dignity.

When I was first diagnosed with cancer in November 2011 I was like many Canadians, I was proud of our universal health care but I had never really been required to test it. I had never dealt with a chronic or life-threatening illness before. I’d never even been hospitalized for surgery or seen the inside of a cancer centre. My innocence of what’s involved in being treated for cancer was shattered almost literally overnight. It took three surgeries and five cycles of chemotherapy to force my disease into remission, along the way there were too many outpatient appointments, tests and scans for me to count. I’ve currently logged thousands of hours in hospitals and seen dozens of physicians and physicians in training, that’s enough to consider myself an insider when it comes to the basics of Canada’s health care system.

Photo by Anna Shvets

Even a decade ago, long before the pandemic, there were many warning signs that the system was under strain. During my cancer surgeries I often felt an urgent need to leave the hospital and go home, I never felt relaxed or like I could take my time to heal. Even then, it may have been easier to define hospitals by what they are not. They’re not places for the sick to get well, not unless healing takes place in the brief interval of time that makes the stay a compensated expense. My hospital treatment was primarily covered by Alberta’s universal health insurance, but I needed my personal Blue Cross insurance plan as well. Through it all I was aware that hospital beds in Alberta cost around $1000 per day and that those beds are in limited supply.

I remember watching in surprise as some short-term stay patients were relegated to the hallway due to the unavailability of rooms. Unfortunately, what I witnessed was a typical example, an unpleasant reminder of how drastically the situation for patients and their families has changed in the past couple of decades. Once hospitals were where you stayed when you were too sick to survive at home; now it’s become customary to go home anyway, cobbling together your own nursing services from friends, relatives and drop-in professionals.

Justifiably the deteriorating situation during the pandemic has me concerned. As a cancer survivor and someone who has relied heavily on health care, I’m becoming more worried each day. The reality is that if my cancer recurs or if I have to resume active treatment, I may not be able to obtain the essential care I need. Fabreau cites the growing deficit in cancer screening and follow up care as the most troubling to him.  “Most tragically, we’re seeing missed cancers, illnesses so advanced they are now incurable. We know delayed diagnosis and treatment increase cancer deaths. Canadian research predicts over 21,000 excess cancer deaths by 2030. Preventable deaths because patients couldn’t or didn’t have appropriate cancer screening.”

Photo by Cedric Fauntleroy

I’m enraged and disheartened because, as Dr. Fabreau explains, the disastrous situation that we now find ourselves in was mainly avoidable. Even before the pandemic, the supply of health care workers was becoming inadequate. Canada has among the lowest physician and an average nurse supply per capita among high-income countries. Both workforces are running on empty: over half of physicians and more than 75 per cent of nurses in Canada are burnt out. It’s now disturbingly obvious that action should have been taken years ago to hire, train and recruit more health care workers. 

Finally, to reduce hospital demand, we must stop pretending COVID-19 is over when it is not. The pandemic is far from ended, particularly for cancer patients and others who are immunocompromised. It’s true Canadian COVID transmission is cresting as we enter the spring and summer seasons, but that simply means we must use this short reprieve until fall to prepare. Governments and health authorities would be wise to use this time to focus on important initiatives such as improving indoor ventilation and uptake of vaccine booster doses.

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