Is the Canadian Health Care System Better Than America’s?

The Left Says:

“Does this mean that the American way is wrong and that we should switch to a Canadian-style single payer system? Well, yes.”

Source: New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, as cited by Sally C. Pipes, “Health Care, Canadian Style,”, September 18, 2004.1

What Conservatives Think:

Canadians increasingly are frustrated by structural weaknesses within their own government-financed health care system.

A February 2004 Canadian Medical Association poll revealed that only 14 percent of Canadians believe their country has a sufficient number of doctors. 49 percent of Canadians said either they or a member of their household had to wait “longer than you thought was reasonable” to see a medical specialist within the last year. 38 percent gave the same answer when asked about access to their family physician, and 31 percent said so about access to advanced diagnostic procedures.2

A whopping 74 percent of Canadians were concerned about long waits for access to emergency room services, while seven percent said they or a member of their household had suffered deteriorating medical conditions as a result of delays in access for care over the past year. Two percent of Canadians actually reported that a member of their household had died waiting for health care.3

Why the waiting times? In Canada, says Dr. Robert J. Cihak, M.D., former president of the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons, “If the Canadian government says it provides a particular medical service, it is illegal for a Canadian citizen to pay for and obtain that service privately. At the same time, the Canadian government bureaucracy rations medical services.”

So shortages are inevitable. Says Dr. Cihak:

In a May/June 2004 article in the journal Health Affairs, researcher Robert Blendon and colleagues described the results of a survey of hospital administrators in Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, the United States, and Canada. Fifty percent of the Canadian hospital administrators said the average waiting time for a 65-year-old man requiring a routine hip replacement was more than six months. Not one American hospital administrator reported waiting periods that long. Eighty-six percent of American hospital administrators said the average waiting time was shorter than three weeks; only 3 percent of Canadian hospital administrators said their patients had this brief a wait.”4

Says Sally Pipes, a Canadian who runs the U.S.-based Pacific Research Institute and who is the author of a book on the Canadian system:

Between 1993 and 2003, [in Canada] the median waiting time from referral by a general practitioner to treatment increased by 90 percent, from 9.3 weeks to 17.7 weeks, according to an annual survey of physicians by the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute. For cancer patients, the waiting time for medical oncology more than doubled from 2.5 weeks to 6.1 weeks, and the waiting time for radiation oncology increased from 5.3 weeks to 8.1 weeks. That’s the experience of 58-year-old Don Cernivz, who noticed blood in his urine in fall of 2003. He waited three weeks for his first diagnostic test and then another month for an MRI. Actual treatment for his cancer of the pelvis didn’t commence until May of the following year. “The waiting time is ridiculous at the hospital,” his daughter complained to the Calgary Herald. “He is in pain.”5

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (an international organization of 30 member nations), in 2001, 63 percent of Americans reported a waiting time of one month or less for elective surgery, compared to 37 percent of Canadians. 32 percent of Americans waited 1-3 months for elective surgery compared to 36 percent of Canadians. Only five percent of Americans reported waits of four months or more for such procedures, compared to 27 percent of Canadians.6

In September 2004, an article by Canadian researchers appearing in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association reported that Canadian heart attack patients run a 17 percent greater risk of dying than their U.S. counterparts. The researchers concluded that the reason for higher Canadian mortality following heart attacks lay in the difference between the way the Canadian and U.S. health systems are organized.7

Advocates of a Canadian system do tout this benefit: Patients pay nothing for services. But this this accurate? Only for those patients who aren’t Canadian taxpayers. Twenty-two percent of all of Canada’s tax revenues go to pay for Canada’s health care system.8

That’s a lot of money for Canadian citizens to spend for a service they can’t be sure they’ll get.

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