No quick fixes for ailing health system

I listened intently last Thursday to a debate between NDP leader and local MPP Howard Hampton, Elizabeth Witmer, a former minister of health, and current Health minister George Smitherman regarding the state of health in Ontario.
What had sparked the debate was the announcement that a hospital in Cambridge, Ont. was hiring a private firm to operate its emergency room. Doctors there had determined they no longer had the ability to safely operate that emergency service.
The debate came to a three-way battle over who was responsible for doctor shortages in Ontario—and what the Ministry of Health was doing to alleviate those shortages.
Smitherman accused both Witmer and Hampton of reducing doctor enrolment in Ontario’s medical schools while their parties held the balance of power. He wanted both to take responsibility for helping to create these shortages through near-sighted policies more than a decade ago.
Hampton was adamant that the governing party had reneged on another campaign promise of making sure Ontario’s medical system was not privatized.
Witmer wanted an apology from Smitherman when he admitted that he would gladly choose a private firm for emergency services when no other service was available.
The anger that Witmer tried to exhibit was over the more than one million Ontario residents who had no personal physician—and no access to even a private corporation providing medical services.
Five times she challenged the minister and five times he deflected the challenge back to her.
Smitherman returned the challenge by pointing out the start-up of the new Northern Ontario medical school during the Liberals’ tenure in government and the establishment of 159 community health centres across the province providing new services to Ontario residents.
He noted that another 40 some centres were in the process of being accredited in Ontario. And that all those centres were helping to alleviate the health care problems in the province.
Neither Witmer nor Hampton argued the point. They only argued that we need more doctors throughout the province and that the current governing party was not responding quickly enough.
Smitherman also noted the Ontario Medical Association had accelerated the accreditation of foreign-trained doctors in the province.
While no person spoke to the fact that it takes a minimum of eight years to become a doctor, the point was hardly missed by those in the audience. The crisis in Cambridge brought home the fact that not only is there a shortage of doctors in rural and Northern Ontario, that same shortage exists in the largest cities of the province.
The 56 spots at the Northern Ontario medical schools, and the 100 extra spaces in Ontario’s older medical schools, will begin adding doctors in 2009.
It was clear through the debate that there are no quick fixes for the system and that other health-care providers no were taking a more prominent role in looking after the health of Ontario residents.
It also explains the success of the community health program in Ontario.

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