Health care in Quebec: Sit down and wait

I made my way to the clinic close to my house by 7 this morning. It opened at 7:30, and by the time I arrived there with my oldest son Boy 1, there were already 8 people waiting in front of the door. My son fell in gym class yesterday, threw up from the shock, and stayed home the rest of the day, sitting quietly on the sofa watching children’s shows I find impossible to watch. Too bad they don’t watch too much SpongeBob anymore.

I expected the wait at the clinic to be a few hours, and brought work with me just in case. However, as usual when I am stuck in a waiting room, I find it difficult to concentrate. It didn’t help matters that the second gentleman in line, who’d injured his foot playing soccer, was writhing in pain and found every excuse possible to stand up and hop painfully on one leg, moaning audibly and squirming his face in exaggerated pain. He was one of those classic “I’m in pain, everyone look at me and feel sorry for me” guys. He definitely chose the wrong crowd: WE’RE ALL SICK, MAN, THAT’S WHY WE’RE HERE. To use an expression I heard yesterday, “Suck it up, man.”

When the doctor finally saw my son two hours later, one of his first questions to me was, “Why didn’t you come here yesterday?” I told him I thought my son’s wrist was only sprained. That’s part of the truth: I did think it was a sprain. After all, he never even cried yesterday. I broke my left arm, oddly enough, 30 years ago this week when I was almost the same age as my son. Back then, I most certainly did cry. But there was another, unvoiced reason why I chose not to go yesterday: I figured the wait would be too long. Arriving at the clinic at noon yesterday would have meant an automatic 4-hour wait. By heading for the clinic first thing in the morning, we were lucky to be out of there after three and a half hours. After the initial consultation with the doctor, we had to go upstairs to a radiology clinic for x-rays, followed by a return to the doctor downstairs, who then told us to go to the children’s hospital to get a cast put on, so another 25 km away. This didn’t happen when I broke my arm…

Once at the children’s hospital, my car safely parked in a jam-packed lot for an exorbitant 16$ (and to think the parking lot staff had a huge “tips” bucket by the window of their booth), we were told to “wait a short while” in Waiting Room 2. “Wait a short while” means two hours in a hospital in Quebec. “Might take a while” is three to six hours and “It will be a while” means you’re better off going home and trying again tomorrow. I’m fortunate to have a son like Boy 1 who was very quiet, never complained, and like me, just sat most of the time. But once in a while he would ask me questions:
  • “Why do we have to wait so long? Does everybody here have broken bones like me?”
  • “Why do we have to go to different places for x-rays and for the cast?”
  •  “Why is there only one guy in the whole hospital who sets the casts?” (He said that after we were told to wait at 1:30 for his cast, only to be told a minute later that the man setting the cast was out to lunch and would be back at 2 PM.)
  • “Why aren’t there more doctors?”

Indeed, why are there not more doctors. The public health care system in Canada, while it does have its advantages over other systems like the one in the US, is still plagued by excessive waiting times in hospitals and clinics, a shortage of doctors, and in Quebec, lower salaries for doctors, thereby making the prospect of practicing here less attractive than in other provinces. The Quebec government recently proposed adding a new “tax” in the form of user fees for health care services in Quebec, a move that is being strongly opposed by many. Looking at how things are now, I can’t help but wonder how effective additional user fees will be. They may be able to pay for useless electronic signs like the one I saw in the hospital this afternoon. It flashed: “Waiting times are between 3 to 6 hours.” Thanks for flashing that in my face every five seconds, it makes the time pass that much faster.

Eight hours after we left the house, my son was getting his cast set around his arm. While the clinic and hospital we went to had their share of junky old technology littering the corridors, I was surprised (but perhaps shouldn’t have been) that the plaster room where my son got his cast had a new cast-dispensing machine that offered polymer-based casts in an assortment of colours. All you had to do was choose your favourite colour, slide your credit card down the side, and poof, your cast, wrapped in a package, tumbles to the bottom of the machine like your favourite chocolate bar in a vending machine. While the machine is fancy, I much would have preferred having a qualified professional offer me the basic service of setting a cast on my son’s arm closer to my home. Is that too much to ask for in a metropolitan city in Canada with a population of about 4 million people? Why is access to health care so poor?

Will things change anytime soon? Let’s see, my best response would have to be “It will be a while.”

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