Canadian “Free” Healthcare is Great … Unless You Have to Use It

English: Alberta Health Services logo from vis...

… in which case, it’s a hodge-podge of incredible inconvenience, outdated ideas and control freak issues.

One of the reasons I wait to go to the doctor until I absolutely can’t home remedy myself to semi-functionality is that the system created by Alberta Health, and zealously overprotected by the medical profession here, sucks sweaty donkey balls.

Factoring access issues out (because family doctors – who are the gatekeepers to all other doors unless you opt to simply brave the emergency room), the main problem is timeliness coupled with time sucking runaround.

Back in Iowa, I could call my doctor’s office and generally get in to see her the same day. X-ray and lab were on site, so there was never a need to run about the city and diagnosis or action plan was meted out at the same appointment.

If I needed to see another doctor or have additional tests, it happened within a couple of weeks. Only rarely did one wait a month or more during the diagnostic phase. A good thing because though most issues are minor and not life-threatening, one can’t really know this for sure in the initial stages. Timely diagnosis is more than a little bit crucial. And so is treatment – depending.

Here it is a very different story. Nothing is on site at the doctor’s office. Nothing.

X-rays? They send you over to queue up at the hospital behind in-patients and the rabble choking the ER.

Blood tests? There is a lab at the hospital and a private lab over by the Starbucks. The doctor will get back to you with the results in a few days. Maybe.

Need a referral? Sometimes the PCN, which is the overlord of the system, will be notified and when the scheduling nurse gets to your referral (they will tell you to call PCN if you haven’t heard anything in a month’s time), she/he will call the office of the doctor you’ve been referred to and set up the appointment for you. You are notified and then asked if the time works. You will make the time work because rescheduling will only throw you further down the list.

Once you have been seen by a doctor, you are theoretically allowed to call and schedule further appointments for yourself. Or not. Sometimes, it’s back to the referral mill for you.

Which is where I am.

My doctor easily granted the referral I needed and told me she’d fax it that same afternoon. However, when I called this morning to make the appointment, the receptionist informed me that, “We don’t take faxes. Only phone calls. Your doctor will have to phone us.”

Which won’t happen. Doctors don’t make their own phone calls. The PCN does it for them. So instead of possibly snagging an appointment in early September, which is where the bookings for the doctor I need to see are currently, it could be October or November because I am now relegated to PCN nurse scheduling hell. Phone tag and “no, that day doesn’t work”.

What doctor doesn’t use fax? Or email. Or e-script to pharmacies?

Doctors in Alberta, that’s who.

Is this the 21st century? Because it is in Iowa and has been for the past decade and a bit. I – O – W – A! When you are more backwards than a corn belt state in the Midwest of the United States, it’s time to be concerned.

Every doctor in Alberta is physically welded to a laptop, but that’s as far as the future goes. Everything else is 1970’s. This includes office decor and hospital rooms. Going to the hospital or doctor’s office here is like stepping back into my childhood pediatrician’s clinic (which housed an x-ray, lab and multiple specialists under the same roof – back in 1971).

I am half-way tempted to just say “fuck it” and see if my sister, DNOS, can’t get me an appointment with her doctor when I am visiting next month.

This is ridiculous bullshit. Our tax dollars pay these people and Rob’s paycheck is docked considerably to purchase the supplemental insurance which keeps us from, among other things, having to beg for pharma samples. A lot of money goes to the cause of the Alberta Health System treating us like inconveniences between them and their provincial paychecks.

On bright side, the odds of my current physical woes being fatal are low. Not nothing. But low. As a Canadian, I am supposed to rejoice in that because “at least I won’t lose my house like people in the States do”, which is a fallacy for another day.

UPDATE (July 16) – Four phone calls to the office of DR I need to see, and three reminder calls to the DR who is referring me late, and I still have no appointment. And there’s no way around this. The local network that “controls” this section of the province is only a database that would – at best – point me to yet another gate keeper to restart the referral process. If Rate My MD is to be believed, the vast majority of my other local choices really suck. The guy I want to see is the best going even if he has zero personality and less bedside manner than is typical even for here. At this point, the only way to speed things up would be to just park in the ER where – at minimum – I would at least get the tests I need and some sort of confirmation as to whether my issue is trivial or something that needs more investigating.  We leave for holiday inside the month and a quick Google of my Iowa hometown revealed that despite having a population of just under 58,000, it boasts as many specialty DR’s of the type I need to see as the area where I live, which is approaching 1,000,000, give or take. Worse case is, according to my sister, I could easily be seen and screened over our three week stay. I’d rather not do that. I am Canadian enough at this point to look down my nose at the sort of person who queue jumps or, worse, flaunts their economic privilege by heading south of the border. It’s one thing to get your dental work done in Mexico when you winter over in the American Southwest or take a winter siesta from Canada’s winter, but quite another to use the US healthcare system. However, I am a little bit worried and my husband is more so. His past experiences with “the system” are more unpleasant than mine, and I would prefer he not have to go through anything similar with me. Today I am feeling stoic (though I came close to tears when talking with the refDR’s receptionist), and I will give it another day or so. All bets are off after that. Patience is a seldom rewarded virtue in the diagnostic stage of unknown medical issues. I learned that quickly when my late husband was stricken. Squeaky wheels inspire momentum if only to get you moving quickly to the next leg of the journey so that you are someone else’s pain in the ass.

4 responses to “Canadian “Free” Healthcare is Great … Unless You Have to Use It

  1. I wonder what happened after all.
    I married Canadian born and raised in Calgary and after having my first baby I have experienced the slap in the face of the Alberta Health Care System.
    It’s a
    Nightmare. Yes. There are worse things (like Mexican public health care) but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t urgently need some serious reforms.
    I’m from Mexico and since I was born I had the good fortune (thanks to my parents) to have access to private health care. As shocking as it may sound to some there are some excellent, trustworthy doctors in Mexico with the latest technology and everything just like in any developed country (this is not always true but you can certainly find that if you know where to look and if you can afford it).
    Overall the quality of the health care in Alberta leaves A LOT to wish for. First off it’s not free at all and second you’ve summarized the main problem in one phrase: The Alberta Health System treats us like inconveniences between them and their next paycheck.
    I’ve always felt doctors and staff can’t wait to just get rid of you.
    You have to show up with your guts coming out for them to refer you to a specialist. Not to go into all the runs around of their unsufferable bureaucracy that you already mentioned. Long waits to get an appointment and just as long waits once you’re at the office.
    That indifferent system put me and my baby at risk after a perfectly healthy pregnancy (not thanks to them). We were in danger when giving birth because of that nuisance treatment most patients get and an obsession with avoiding c section to the point of the absurd.
    Anyway that’s just one example I could get lost in tales of incompetence and of how bad they treat people.
    Another big issue is the lack of doctors (especially GOOD ones)
    So when you see that people from Mexico are shocked (even if a pampered one) time to snap out and make those big tax dollars really count.
    This system has tought me to dread doctors and the whole health care almost like a phobia.
    It’s a wonderful, noble idea but it needs a lot of tuning, changing and fixing.
    I hope your health situation wasn’t anything of concern.

    • Thanks for sharing your story and for your concern.

      My health issues did turn out okay but the wait and the anxiety did me no good.

      I too avoid the healthcare system here like plague. The upside is that I have become very knowledgeable about alternative medicine and treatments but the only time I darken my GP or gyno’s door is when I am forced to go in to renew prescriptions (another archaic system that is a decade behind technology that should allow us to skip this and simply get refills via our pharmacists).

      I hope you and your baby are doing well.

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