A Visit with our Neighbor to the North

By Richard Dillihunt, M.D.
Maine Medicine, July 2014

For decades, I have admired the Canadian health care system, first while at a remote Northern Quebec fishing camp. There, impromptu sick call was held for the Cree, local aboriginal people with rights to this remote land. Members of this tribe had various complaints that we treated with our medical chest. Despite the difference in language in the elderly, the shyness barriers were easily overcome. They seemed completely confident in our medical abilities.

We felt privileged as caregivers to be given such confidence and warm doctor-patient relationships came forth. Over the years we saw burns from campfire mishaps, an acute gallbladder, and a mangled hand injured beyond our medical capabilities. We made radio calls to regional flying services, and patients were fetched and flown to various medical centers. There were no lawyers or insurance companies involved. The only physical evidence of health care coverage was a small card that each patient guarded carefully. This card admitted them to their national health care system. It provided quality medical care covering all 35 million Canadians scattered across the second largest nation on earth.

The patient with the injured hand was emblematic of this system. A radio call summoned a floatplane, and the patient was loaded and lugged across and down the 150 km of the Peribonka River to the medical center in Chicoutimi. After treatment, he was returned by air. That little card had covered all medical care and transportation. Imagine what such a journey would cost us!

This system of universal health care came into being in 1946. It is attributed to a Canadian native son, Tommy Douglas. As premier of Saskatchewan, he established a universal single-payer health care for all of Canada. After his death he was voted “Greatest Canadian” by the Canadian Broadcast Corporation viewers.

Although medical service for the Cree and Inuit have been difficult for the Canadian government to perfect, they have enjoyed great success. Given the vast territory, the nation does well to spread its resources over ten million square km, much of it being a harsh environment.

The Canadian system deserves careful scrutiny by every American who has concerns regarding our badly broken health care system. Inspection of how the Canadians have successfully developed their universal single-payer form of health care uncovers features that the U.S. needs to seriously consider.

Just recently Danielle Martin, a brilliant young Canadian physician, called attention to the superior provisions of Canada’s public system in her testimony before Sen. Bernie Sanders’ committee in Washington. She showed that the Canadian system is based on need, not on the ability to pay. Her interaction with Sen. Burr (R-N.C.) went viral, generating over 700,000 views on YouTube across North America. Many major media outlets focused on her evidence-based, intelligent, and energetic defense of Canadian Medicare.

Canadians take great pride in their medicare-for-all system. They know that Canada’s life expectancy rates and maternal and infant mortality figures are superior to America’s, and their quality of care is equal to ours. They are aware that, traditionally, wait times have been a source of intense criticism of their system. They understand that this is largely overblown by stateside special interest groups whose propaganda has brainwashed America about horrendous waiting times for referrals and elective surgery. The facts show differently. Canada has addressed wait time issues with a Wait Time Alliance. Through this alliance there has been much improvement, and changes have been uncovered to correct this problem.

Two nations have developed, through different pathways, health care systems which are clinically similar and among the world’s best. When compared, Canada has taken the high ground, selecting a route featuring social justice and equality with a strong nationalism. Canadians are caring for one another. America’s profit-driven hard-nosed traditions and business practices have permeated the ways and means of the USA’s health care.

Lacking checks and balances, our system costs nearly twice that of Canada’s per capita, $8,233 vs $4,445 yearly. This accounts for 17.6 percent of America’s GDP while Canada’s health care expenditure is 11.4 percent of her GDP according to 2012 statistics. The most stunning statistic of all is this. Even with the ACA finally deployed, there are over 30 million uninsured American citizens, approximately equal to the entire population of Canada where everyone is covered by medicare, and a simple little card replaces by comparison a vast array of paperwork that chokes our system.

The Canadian system is remarkably popular in America. Maine must pay attention to this surge. Because of our unique geographical location, we are surrounded by Canadian relatives, friends, and neighbors. Canada can provide us with more than frigid winds. We need to lead the way in acknowledging a very attractive Canadian health care system.

Richard C. Dillihunt, M.D., of Portland is a retired surgeon.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed above are the opinion of MMA member and retired surgeon Dr. Dillihunt. MMA members with concurring or opposing opinions are welcome to share them with MMA for possible publication in future issues of Maine Medicine. Comments and articles (please keep your articles under 600 words) may be shared with Shirley Goggin at