In defence of our medical system

Long line of people waiting

Save me a spot at the back of the line.

Yesterday, an acquaintance was complaining about her frustration with Calgary’s health system, and I found myself wanting to speak up in its defence. Thankfully it was just my inside voice shouting–I gave myself a headache–but I caught myself getting riled up. This woman was annoyed that, although she had a referral for a specific scan, she asked the technician to complete a second scan from a different, later referral rather than go back in the queue. In other words, she’d wanted access to the buffet but she’d only paid for the entree. She figured she’d be saving the system time and money.

I know the system isn’t perfect. I’m a frequent flyer so I’ve had many opportunities to assess its functioning, at least with respect to my own care. This month alone, I will go for blood testing three times and to doctors twice, and I’m on a low-maintenance schedule currently. But during my high-maintenance phases, when I’ve really needed it, the health system has been there for me. I’ve had access to all the tests I’ve needed when I’ve been deathly ill, and others, like this woman, have probably been kept waiting as a result. I’m not proud of getting in faster than lower-priority patients at those times, but I know I could have been in dire straits had I had to wait. Life-or-death straits. Did I deserve the test more? No, but I probably needed it more at that time, and I’m grateful that I got access as quickly as I did.

And I believe, were this woman in medical crisis, that she too would have been scheduled sooner for her second test, but the system must not have seen her as a high priority, whether rightly or wrongly. Every visit to the Cancer Centre reminds me that there are people suffering more than me, people who are likely higher up any queue I might be on, and I’m glad to wait so they can go first. I’m not the one awaiting a follow-up scan after radiation or investigation of an ominous lump on some body part.

In fact, one of the things I’ve realized over time is that having to wait is a good thing, even though I might prefer an immediate answer to any concern my doctor raises. Having to wait means the doctor isn’t all that worried about me. It means she doesn’t think I’m going to die if I don’t get the answer right away. In fact, I worry more when I’m at the top of the queue.

I’m not saying the system always works. Sometimes I’ve had to wait for procedures that should have happened sooner because of misplaced paperwork or other factors, human or otherwise. But most of the time everything has worked as I’ve needed it to when I’ve needed it to, and the successes far outweigh the missteps.

Maybe someday this woman will have a different appreciation for the medical system as it stands. I don’t mean to sound heartless, but I hope this woman never jumps to the front of the line. Sometimes being first isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.


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