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Why Are Physicians Being Labelled Right-Wing Radicals?

03/01/2017 12:01 EST | Updated 03/01/2017 12:01 EST

If you've been following health care news in Ontario over the past few years you will no doubt have heard about doctors fighting. We're fighting with the government over failed contract talks but we're also fighting amongst ourselves, namely with our negotiating body, the Ontario Medical Association.

Just last month doctors used a non-confidence motion to force the mass resignations of the OMA executive.

doctor megaphone

(Photo: Ryanking999 via Getty Images)

Multiple, loosely connected grassroots organizations of physician advocates have emerged recently, as more and more of us feel that putting our heads down and working complacently within the struggling health care system is no longer an option.

We are speaking out for ourselves and our patients against the chronic underfunding and mismanagement of Ontario health care.

Putting our heads down and working complacently within the struggling health care system is no longer an option.

As with all activism, critics of our efforts abound.

Here are some of words used to describe grassroots physician advocates in the past little while: radicals, extremists, hardliners, Tea Party-esque and -- my personal favorite given the current dystopian state of the world -- Trump-style.

Who knew that fighting for the integrity of universal medicare in Canada was such a right-wing activity?

The Toronto Star recently published an article that pushed the idea that we are some sort of radial right-wing fringe group.

In it we are labelled as "ultraconservative," uninterested in the kinds of strong social programs that would improve the health of our patients, like a guaranteed annual income. Seeing as we are only interested in padding our bank accounts we disingenuously trying to mask this primary purpose beneath a false concern for our patients.

This is what is known as a straw man argument. The idea that I can't be simultaneously concerned about paying my office expenses AND the fact that my patients are suffering in a failing health care system is bogus.

Doctors are the duct tape that holds health care together when the government strips services away. When my patients find it harder and harder to access specialist care like mental health or surgical services, I, as their family physician, have to string together some sort of plan to help them cope.

When my rural patients have to drive further and further to access dwindling resources because of the systematic dismantling of smaller hospitals over the past 20 years, I take on more and more of the burden of their care.

The term "ultraconservative" is a smear and nothing more.

I desperately need support in the form of better and more services for my patients, but the government response is to scapegoat me and my colleagues as greedy and entitled so as to avoid engaging with our actual concerns. Using this kind of rhetoric is a classic management strategy to undermine workers during a labour dispute, which -- despite the fact that we don't actually have a union -- is what this is.

However, calling the disagreement between Ontario doctors and the provincial government a labour dispute would disrupt the false narrative of extreme conservatism. We can't be health care workers fighting for a fair contract if we're also fat cat right-wing radicals, no?

The term "ultraconservative" is a smear and nothing more. I admit I laughed out loud when I first read it. Was the author trying to say "alt-right" but his fingers slipped on his keyboard? Shame on the Toronto Star for trying to silence physician advocates with a dogwhistle to readers fearful of the global rise of the radical right.

crowded waiting room Patients in a crowded hospitla waiting room (Getty)

The doctors I know who oppose the government come from all political stripes, so I'm not trying to pretend there aren't conservatives among us (just no one who particularly reminds me of the Tea Party).

I myself am a staunch progressive. I joined the socialist-leaning and now defunct Medical Reform Group when I was in my first year of medical school. When its successor, Canadian Doctors for Medicare, was created I joined that group as well. I strongly support a guaranteed annual income and am impressed with the efforts of Dr. Gary Bloch and his group Health Providers Against Poverty.

Is the Toronto Star really trying to say that the old guard OMA are a bunch of lefties who spent their time advocating for progressive ideas like a guaranteed annual income? Again, I find myself laughing.

It offends me to the core as a progressive that I would be treated to a bonus for denying my own services to my patients.

There were many reasons why I voted NO on the failed physician contract last summer but let me tell you the main one. The government proposed a hard cap on physician services, meaning a point past which it would no longer provide funding for physician care.

That alone should be offensive enough to anyone who might want to see their doctor after this arbitrary hard cap was reached. But what I found truly objectionable was the fact that government was offering a bonus to doctors as group if we could somehow keep the physician services budget from hitting the hard cap.

In other words, if we restricted our patients' access to health care, the government would financially reward us. Not only is it simply ridiculous to task physicians with managing costs in a system that is driven by patient demand, it offends me to the core as a progressive that I would be treated to a bonus for denying my own services to my patients.

If our detractors want to keep tarring those of us who have lost confidence with the OMA and the government with the "ultraconservative" brush so be it. But if we are ever going to resolve the doctors' struggle with the government and the broken health care system all around us, we are going to have to look past simplistic right vs. left narratives and deal with some hard and complex truths.

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