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Portions of the included interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Throughout this series, I have been sharing my experiences navigating disability within the Canadian healthcare system. While most of the feedback I received has been positive, a doctor acquaintance cautioned me against writing this series, fearing that medical practitioners may refuse to help or provide care to me. Personally, I believe their advice lacks merit, as I have often maintained positive relationships with my care providers. However, if there is any truth to their concern, it just goes to show the importance of using my privilege as a white, cisgender woman to highlight the complex issues within our medical system.
I also wanted to clarify that my articles are not meant to be read as a smear campaign against healthcare workers. Instead, I am aiming to address the systemic issues within our healthcare system and shed light on the individuals who may not fulfill their professional obligations.
In this series, I have shared some of my personal negative experiences with the Canadian healthcare system. These issues are often complex and systemic, but it’s important to note that there are viable solutions we can implement. These solutions aim to improve the experiences of future patients while also equipping medical professionals with the necessary resources to provide better care.
Addressing Long Wait Times
Unbearably long wait times for treatment are quite common in the Canadian healthcare system. These infamously long wait times not only affect emergency room patients, but also those seeking specialist appointments, which can take anywhere from six months to a year (or even longer depending on the province).
I recently spoke with Dr. Samir Gupta, a respirologist and clinician scientist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, to discuss some of the challenges facing our current healthcare system. When asked about the long wait times, Gupta expressed his belief that they are caused by a lack of resources and funding. “Sometimes it’s because we don’t have enough medical equipment, technicians, or surgeons. Sometimes nurses, operating theaters, and anesthetists may also not be available. Depending on which wait time you are targeting there are different bottlenecks and different barriers to reducing those wait-times,” said Gupta.
Clearly, allocating additional funding to hire more staff and improve medical technologies in hospitals would likely lead to shorter wait times. Gupta emphasized that funding for hospitals is an issue that requires attention at both federal and provincial levels. “While there are different barriers to reducing wait-times for different issues, these are all systemic issues that require more resources, which means increased funding” said Gupta.
Increased Awareness of Mental Health Issues that are Affecting Patients
Improving the healthcare system can also involve enhancing the training of medical practitioners around mental health awareness. Studies have shown that individuals with disabilities are more likely to experience mental health challenges compared to those without disabilities.
When medical professionals possess a solid understanding of mental health issues, it helps facilitate better communication and comprehension of their patients. I know personally that my physical disabilities have made my life more challenging and affected my mental health. When a healthcare provider has a greater knowledge of mental health issues, I find they can provide me with care in a more holistic manner, which results in more comprehensive and effective treatments. Having some education in patient psychology can also allow for medical workers to better understand a patient’s perspective.
Active Communication is Vital
Improving patient-doctor interactions can also be beneficial for nursing and medical students with the necessary tools to engage in active listening and collaborative conversations with patients. This will allow both parties to adequately express their feelings, and concerns and goals for patient treatment. A recurring issue that I have identified in my research is the feeling of being ignored or easily dismissed when speaking with physicians by patients.
One of the people who echoed this statement was Gordon, a person with a chronic illness, who said: “I think doctors just need to listen to their patients more and trust them, rather than throwing things into doubt,” claimed Gordon. “It is quite demeaning to book appointments for an issue that you cannot figure out, only to have the doctor be unable to diagnose it either because they weren’t really listening or because of some arbitrary thing you told them.”
As patients, we simply seek the same courtesy and respect that most patients are trying to extend to their care practitioners. We want to be able to have constructive dialogues with our care providers so that we can express our concerns and obtain necessary help. Central to this interpersonal communication is the practice of both parties being courteous and actively listening. Unfortunately, patients who respectfully interact with their medical professionals are sometimes met with hostility, dismissal, or gaslighting.
Breakdowns in communication and misunderstandings between doctors and patients can hinder the treatment process too. Beyond disruptions, crucial information and concerns about a patient’s illness can be overlooked, leading to significant errors such as undertreatment, overtreatment, diagnostic errors, and medication distribution or prescription errors. Jonathan Jerry, a science communicator from McGill University, wrote in an article: “Some people have died or been permanently injured because of errors fostered by a healthcare system that needs to be improved. The patient safety movement is important because errors that can be prevented should be prevented.” As such, active listening and constructive communication skills are critical for both patients and healthcare practitioners.
I hope the larger shift to focusing on mental health issues within our culture will encourage policy-makers to better educate doctors and medical students around these issues. When healthcare professionals possess this knowledge, they can provide a more holistic treatment. All patients want is to maintain dignity even while experiencing a life-altering illness. I hope that interpersonal communication and mental health awareness will be emphasized in seminars and continuing professional development materials for licensed physicians and nurses.
Fostering Social Justice and Equity in Medicine
As I had discussed in a previous article, addressing medical discrimination against historically marginalized groups, such as the LGBTQ+ community, requires a multifaceted approach. For example, tackling unconscious bias, racism, and implementing internal systems within the healthcare sector can prevent misuse of power from people in positions of power.” Scholars and activists also suggest incorporating antiracist and anti-oppression frameworks into medical education and ensuring diverse and equitable hiring practices in healthcare institutions.
When I spoke about some of the mistreatment I experienced during my interview with Dr. Gupta, he expressed how that kind of behavior is completely unacceptable. He emphasized that while doctors may face stress, they still have to fulfill their responsibility of providing care to the public, especially those who are vulnerable and in need of help. I hope that this series has shed some light on some of the real challenges that patients can face when attempting to access healthcare. On a personal note, I have received some care and help for my minor vision impairment. Although it took some time to adjust, I am grateful that my condition is more manageable now. As for my future, I cannot predict what lies ahead, but as Natasha Bedingfield puts it, today is where my book begins, and the rest is still unwritten.
Edited by Light Naing