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Canadians’ faith in the country’s health-care system still strong

About 3 in 5 Canadians think there are good things in the system, but many say changes are needed
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About one-third of Canadians believe a shortage of doctors and nurses is the biggest problem facing the health-care system.

As Canadians enter the 19th month of life under the COVID-19 pandemic, our views on how governments have managed the crisis have gone through some changes. Quebec and British Columbia have usually been ahead of all other jurisdictions on management. The early skepticism about a successful vaccine rollout gave way to a high level of satisfaction with both federal procurement and the pace of efforts in each province.

Before Canadians cast their ballots in last month’s federal election, health care was identified as the most important issue facing the country by 27% of voters – rising to 38% in Quebec and to 42% in Atlantic Canada. In June, the health-care system was regarded as a source of pride by 66% of Canadians – higher than Indigenous culture, bilingualism and the justice system.

In spite of these feelings, the current state of affairs is not ideal. At this time, medical resources in specific provinces have been pushed to the limit, leading to the postponement and cancellation of procedures. Still, Canadians maintain their optimism about what the system will be able to do for them, even as the pandemic continues. When Research Co. and Glacier Media asked Canadians about health care, more than three in four (77%) continue to believe that the system would be there to provide the help and assistance that they would need if they had to face an unexpected medical condition or disease.

One of the unique features of the past federal campaign was the absence of a significant discussion on the deficit. The pandemic has made centre-right politicians more mindful about addressing how money should be allocated in the future. The current state of affairs is not lost on Canadians, with more than four in five (82%) rejecting the notion of the federal government making cuts to health-care funding to reduce debt.

For a couple of days, the 2021 federal election campaign looked like the one from 2000, with the Liberals pushing the perception that the Conservatives were seriously considering a wider participation of the private sector in the delivery of health-care services. Most Canadians do not believe this would result in an improvement, with 56% disagreeing with the idea that health care in Canada would be better than it is now if it were run by the private sector.

Practically three in five Canadians (59%) maintain the view that there are some good things in the health-care system but many changes are required. By a two-to-one margin, Canadians are more likely to look at health care as requiring only minor modifications (25%) than to suggest that the system needs to be completely rebuilt (12%).

Our personal experiences may be making us more distrustful. While 32% of Canadians aged 18 to 34 look at health care as being practically perfect, only 25% of their counterparts aged 35 to 54 and 22% of those aged 55 and over share the same view.

The pandemic has led to heightened concerns about staffing. There have been countless reports about the abuse that has been directed at medical personnel, both on social media and during some irresponsible protests. Canadians now believe a shortage of doctors and nurses is the biggest problem facing the health-care system (32%, up six points since 2020). Long wait times have dropped to the second spot (27%, down four points) followed by bureaucracy and poor management (14%, up one point) and inadequate resources and facilities (8%, unchanged).

The fact that a perceived lack of doctors and nurses is now the main concern for Canadians cannot be overstated. Before the pandemic, various jurisdictions promised to improve access to family doctors. Walk-in clinics have become the norm for many, and while there is satisfaction with the use of digital health tools, the system now faces a new challenge: making professions that are usually widely respected more attractive to young people who have been exposed to the shock that the pandemic has caused.

Our data makes the plight of Atlantic Canada particularly evident. Nova Scotia recently went through a provincial election where the opposition Progressive Conservatives turned health care into a major policy plank, with promises of new spending and explicit targets for delivery.

This month, Atlantic Canada is home to the largest proportion of residents who express little or no confidence in the health-care system to be there in their time of need (33%). Also, while residents of other provinces grapple with dueling concerns, two-thirds of Atlantic Canadians (66%) point the finger solely at the shortage of doctors and nurses. With numbers like these ones, residents will indubitably keep a close eye on the progress of their provincial administrations. Other governments, even if they are not facing an election soon, should thread carefully.

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.

Results are based on an online study conducted from October 4 to October 6, 2021, among 1,000 adults in Canada. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region in Canada. The margin of error, which measures sample variability, is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.