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Physician Protests Against Liberal Cuts Have Made Me An Activist

02/08/2016 12:22 EST | Updated 02/08/2017 05:12 EST
C/O Nadia Alam

On a cold, blustery January afternoon, doctors from as far as Kingston, Barrie and Milton drove down to stand in protest with colleagues, patients and MPPs. I was one of the 200 demonstrators challenging the Liberals' unilateral actions.

It was my first protest ever. I listened to speeches. I shouted "Care not cuts! Put patients first!" I waved a placard, "A scandal a day pushes doctors away!" And I marched. I even took a selfie.

It was so different from what I had imagined. After all, in the recent past, I observed other protests with a sense of distance and even faint embarrassment. As the Ontario Medical Association ads affirmed, I did not see myself as an activist.

Instead, I found the rally thrilling, even uplifting. Something intangible in that moment when I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with others who cared infused me with passion and solidarity. It brought me out of my self-conscious shell and gave me clarity of purpose. So yes, I am now an activist.

I care enough about the mess the Liberals have made of Ontario's health care to protest. And as a result of the rally, the often under-reported issue of health care has come to the forefront of political campaigning in the Whitby-Oshawa byelection.

This serves as a reminder of the power that an ordinary person wields. As politicians vie for votes, it would do them well to remember that the public bequeaths them the power of representation, the power to voice their interests and needs.

This is the same byelection that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is dipping his toes into. Rumours are there will be more protests the night of his appearance. These days, there are many groups who are unhappy with the Liberals.

In the past, I was generally detached from political rhetoric. Despite the scandals, I naively believed my elected leaders were benevolent. Now, I not only question their motives, I completely disbelieve their promises. What does it say about a leader when their followers no longer trust them?

Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins is pushing through an agenda to transform health care, and he's starting with primary care. In a climate of rising need and shrinking resources, a rethink of our health care system is necessary and overdue. But his timeline worries me: Ontario is expected to implement his agenda by spring of 2017. The devil is in the details, so they say.

I am terrified of how this rapidly shifting landscape will jeopardize my ability to care for patients and provide for my family.

Hoskins is doing this at a time when the provincial Liberals are pushing health care austerity. Funding for necessary physician services have been cut so drastically that clinics are closing, left, right and centre. As a result, more patients flood hospitals and emergency departments for what could have been dealt with in a community-based setting at less overall cost to the taxpayers.

Clinic closure is the last resort when doctors hit the limit of other cost-saving measures: reduced service and staff. And while medicine is a portable profession, physicians like myself spend a great deal of time, money and love setting up a practice. We devote even more time nurturing patient-doctor relationships. This is not just a job. Medicine is a calling.

So even though we have been without a fair contract for nearly two years, physicians like myself are fighting tooth and nail to keep our practices afloat. Binding arbitration would settle this dispute, but the provincial Liberals refused us.

Health care austerity also affects funding for hospitals. In fact, Ontario's hospitals are now in such dire financial straits that most non-cancer, non-emergent surgeries have been rescheduled to the spring when funding is renewed.

Hospitals cost a ton of money to run -- money to hire nurses and support staff, to pay for new technology, to repair old equipment, to buy stretchers, gauze, lightbulbs, so on and so forth. Much of this money flows down from the provincial coffers.

Hospitals, like doctors, are not allowed to charge patients above the government's rate for medically necessary procedures. So they seek revenues elsewhere to help prop their doors open -- like parking fees. I used to think parking fees were a vile practice. But now I understand that parking fees are another symptom of chronic under-funding.

I worry about the consequences of the Ontario Liberals' promise to freeze parking fees. Yes, patients will be happier in the short term, but what will hospitals do to pay their hydro bills? Delay more surgeries? Fire more nurses? Refuse to hire more physicians? Declare a "bed shortage" crisis?

You see, it's all intertwined. When hospitals say they "don't have beds," they don't mean that there are no physical beds. What's missing is the staff. You cannot safely place a waiting patient in an empty stretcher without a nurse to care for them or a doctor to manage their illness.

My greatest fear: we will hear more about patients like Burlington teen Laura Hillier who died waiting for one such hospital bed.

A colleague of mine encapsulated it perfectly: "On the surface of health care, like so many ducks on a pond, Ontario's physicians move with quiet dignity. But beneath that surface, we are paddling like hell to stay afloat."

As the population grows and ages, and the forecasted "Silver Tsunami" hits the pond in the next 15 years, who knows how many will sink, swim or fly away?

In this climate of desperate instability, even the opposition parties are denouncing government policies undermining our health care system. But the provincial Liberals are still not listening. Will the federal Liberals?

Justin Trudeau is diving into the Whitby-Oshawa byelection. Will he do more than just come up for a photo opp? Will he address the growing unrest and outrage directed at the political big fishes in the small Ontario pond? Or will he dismiss it as too provincial?

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