Cut Services To Elderly, Says Doctors’ Survey… But Leave Our Salaries Alone!

“With a guaranteed income and job security, I don’t know one doctor who has suffered in the recession…”

By David South

Today’s Seniors (Canada), January 1993

If the results of a nation-wide survey of doctors are right, Canadian physicians love medicare but abhor government attempts to make them accountable for its costs. It also suggests that doctors are more willing to talk about cutting services to seniors and people with “unhealthy lifestyles” than to discuss cutting their own wages to save money. 

However, according to some doctors, physicians’s anger with the provincial government is founded on ignorance and poor analysis of the larger forces affecting health care. 

The survey, Breaking the Wall of Silence: Doctors’ Voices Heard at Last, was commissioned by The Medical Post, a national newspaper for doctors. It sent questionnaires to 12,000 doctors, receiving 3,087 responses. The Post also conducted in-person interviews to better gauge the mood of doctors. 

The survey’s title is somewhat misleading, considering that doctors have been making noise over a number of issues this year; targets included proposed right-to-treatment legislation, cuts to the Drug Benefit Plan, capping of yearly billings at $450,000, and inquiries into charges of sexual abuse by doctors. And most significantly, the last conference of the Canadian Medical Association passed a resolution calling for a two-tier health system in which those with money can hop the queue. 

Post editor Diana Swift says the poll shows fairly strong support for limiting services to the elderly, although the survey question is short on details: “I feel it is reasonable that access to high-cost services such as transplants should be rationed according to such parameters as the patient’s age and/or unhealthy habits.”

Yet just under 70 per cent of doctors opposed any capping of their salaries, despite 56 per cent of the public supporting this measure according to a 1991 Globe and Mail-CBC poll. 

When questioned, Health Minister Francis Lankin expressed surprise that doctors felt so strongly, and denied the government is considering rationing services to seniors. Lankin feels the volatile mood of doctors is a reaction to the rapid changes taking place in health care. 

Dr. Michael Rachlis, health care critic and author of the book Second Opinion, says the survey’s low response rate means that the answers reflect “redneck physicians, who are more likely to respond.” Swift admits to a high response rate from young male physicians, who since the 1986 doctors’s strike in Ontario, have been considered the profession’s most militant. 

One response which some may find alarming was towards the “Oregon model.” In that American state, medical procedures are rationed to seniors and individuals covered by medicare. Anybody needing uncovered emegency treatment has to pay for it themselves. A disturbing 65 per cent of survey respondents supported such a move. 

Dr. Gerry Gold, associate registrar at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, feels that some doctors lack perspective. “The complaints are a reflection of frustration with increasing involvement of government. But if physicians understood the role of the government in the U.S., they would realize they, along with insurance companies, intervene far more.”

Gold says doctors have had the same complaints ever since the beginnings of medicare. “Many front-line doctors lack the information to make informed comment,” he says. “They aren’t being consulted or informed by the government.”

Rachlis says many doctors fail to realize how privileged they are. “Canadian physicians don’t realize medicare has protected their autonomy more than in the U.S.,” he says. “Doctors are always angry because they have large chips on their shoulders from being brutalized in their training. They don’t realize the government has given them a privileged monopoly over health services. With a guaranteed income with job security, I don’t know one doctor who has suffered in this recession.”

Gold doesn’t foresee strikes or job actions by doctors, but predicts further government cuts, and more services being de-insured by OHIP. A recent example involved removing coverage for third-party medical exams such as those requested by employers or insurance companies. As medical procedures end up outside of OHIP, Gold foresees physicians charging whatever they like. 

A perennial idea is the user fee. This is one of the few ideas that gathers support from a majority of doctors and the general population alike. But Rachlis feels these measures are meanspirited and avoid the real problems plaguing health care. “When Saskatchewan introduced user fees for physician and hospital care in 1968,” he says, “health costs remained the same and it discouraged the elderly, the poor and people with large families from seeking service. 

“When providers are allowed to charge users for care, as in the United States, where more than 20 per cent of health care costs are paid our of pocket, overall costs go up.”