Opinion: How to Survive the B.C. Health Care System

It’s that dreaded moment none of us want to hear: you’re sick. It could be something as simple as a cold or fever, or something more serious like a chronic autoimmune disease or worse. Chances are you or a loved one will be in this situation one day and it’s important for you to know the ins and outs of navigating the never-ending bureaucracy that is the B.C. health care system.

Let me explain.

I have been fighting a chronic autoimmune disease for the past 10 years of my life. I was first diagnosed at 20-years-old with psoriasis, an “incurable” autoimmune disease that has lead me in and out of the B.C. health care system. Below is a listing of thoughts for you to think about.

No one cares about your health more than you

Taking a personal responsibility for one’s health is key to ensuring you have the healthy outcomes. For me – this meant Googling symptoms and researching my disease so I could discuss it with my doctor. As doctors in B.C. are paid per visit, there is no economic incentive for them to research the newest treatments, most effective cures or try new things. Often times, I walked into my dermatologist’s office with the newest medical studies that completely contradicted his previous opinion – he was forced to ‘listen’ to me then.

Monitor your own symptoms – know when to go to the emergency room

Most of us believe we should stay away from emergency room clinics as much as possible. After all, walk-in clinics are for those of us who are reasonably healthy, right? Didn’t break your arm or light yourself on fire? Don’t need to go to the emergency room then, right? WRONG.

I cannot tell you how many friends of mine have made the mistake of going to a walk-in clinic with long-term symptoms, such as a cough, chronic stomach aches lasting months and other “minor symptoms” that turned out to be quite serious. The reason is obvious – we are living in the days of early detection. Early detection of cancer can increase your odds of a 90 per cent survival rate. Now, what type of symptoms do you think you will be displaying at the “early phase” of cancer. The response is obvious – it is simple, long term chronic things, such as a cough, abdominal pain, stomach aches or difficulty breathing. I have known friends who have gone for months to a walk-in clinic doctor only to be sent home with aspirin, when they were misdiagnosed. Many of us have lost a loved one that went to the walk-in clinic, told they were fine, and six months later found out they had stage four cancer. Why weren’t the requisite tests ordered and run at that time? It’s no skin off the doctor’s back – not like he/she is going to die. They’re going to move on to patient number 155 of the day.

Now one may ask – what makes an emergency room visit different? A well-functioning ER has all of the diagnostic equipment and doctors at the hospital’s disposal to, at least, attempt to diagnose chronic issues outside of a cold. If a doctor suspects a potential serious issue – you can give blood and urine tests and get the results within a few hours. More areas of concern? Perhaps an MRI or CT scan is necessary to confirm a diagnosis or further analyze an issue. If you go to the right hospitals and everything works out correctly (i.e. there’s a 1,000 patient backlog) you may be able to have that diagnostic you would have waited months in line for at the walk-in clinic, in just hours.

I cannot stress how important monitoring your own symptoms is and discussing with your doctor what needs to be done. Often times doctors are over-worked, see many patients per day and it is easy for them to ‘miss something.’ It’s okay for the doctor to miss something – it doesn’t affect their paycheque or their health, but it does affect yours.

Not all hospitals are created equal

In the government bureaucracy that is health care, practitioners will tell you that one hospital is just as good as another. Anyone that can think for themselves and has visited multiple ER rooms at various hospitals realizes this is not the case. Each hospital has is it’s own individual bureaucracy, with lack of standardized testing, lab equipment, on-call specialists and resources to meet the needs of ER patients. I was astounded at the professionalism and technical competency of the St. Paul’s Hospital ER staff. The number of diagnostic tests, level of analysis and general thoroughness of how they treat patients is a big reason why I choose to drive from Burnaby to downtown Vancouver if I believe there is a potential issue.

Be demanding

If you have had chronic symptoms of something for longer than six weeks that has definitely not gotten better or gone away, go to the ER immediately and demand the requisite testing – that is your health-care right. A friend of mine had a chronic cough for six months and, after seeing several specialists and walk-in clinics, he went to the ER and demanded the appropriate screening be done for cancer or other issues. The first doctor denied him – informing him it was only a cough and it would go away. The second doctor agreed with him and prescribed the requisite cancer screening tests, and guess what they found? Yes – tumours, and lots of them! My poor friend had been coughing away for months and tumours had been growing in his lungs with no doctor’s advice to order a CT. The situation was so serious he had a biopsy done three days later and found out that the tumours were not cancerous, thankfully, but that he would need oral steroid medication to alleviate the problem. What would have happened if my friend had listened to the first doctor? You be the judge and jury on that one.

Do not overreact

Does this mean you should run to the ER every time you cough, display flu-like symptoms or stub your toe? No –  be smart about your own health and be conscience of the fact that we live in a universal health care system that is already drained and costs all of us a lot of money. If everyone went to the ER for their colds, the doctors would never get anything done and serious health issues would go missed. Clearly, a balance needs to be struck.

ER wait times now posted online

Which ER should you go to? Get live wait times here: www.edwaittimes.ca.


Have you had any crazy health care system experiences? Send us your story! Email tips [at] vancitybuzz [dot] com.


Image: brent_granby