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Jaw-dropping untruths
Aug 21, 2009

Using anecdotal evidence is an extremely poor way to support a position on health care, whether in the United States or Canada. In the U.S., the ongoing debate vividly illustrates the dangers of using such evidence, which clouds the issue of health-care reform rather than leading to discussions of useful solutions. 

In an effort to  stigmatize the “public option,” conservative opposition to President Barack Obama and his effort to reform the American health-care system have looked north of the border to find examples of anecdotal evidence to show how the Canadian system is “socialism” in its most reprehensible form. In fact, Canada has become the conservative “whipping boy” of “socialized medicine.”

Meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Guadalajara, Mexico, Obama discussed his battles on the health-care front in the U.S.

“I suspect that you Canadians will continue to get dragged in by those who oppose reform — even though I’ve said nothing about Canadian health-care reform,” Obama told Harper during a recent summit meeting, which included Mexican President Felipé Calderon.

“I don’t find Canadians particularly scary, but I guess some of the opponents of reform think they make a good bogeyman.”

Demonizing Canada and Britain’s National Health Service  has become the order of the day during American town hall debates and among conservative talk show hosts.

“When folks want to talk about their worst version of rationalizing restrictions on care, they’ll point to Canada,” said Thomas Miller, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, a conservative think-tank in Washington.

A Canadian woman was recently used in conservative-funded commercials to feed upon Americans’ deep-seated distrust of anything smacking of government involvement. The Ontarian said if she hadn’t gone to the U.S. for a $100,000 brain tumour treatment, she would have died. Actually, there is a good measure of suspicion that the woman’s condition was not as threatening as reputed. Yet, her anecdotal evidence instilled fear about the bogeyman of a Canadian-style single-payer “socialized” health care system penetrating Obama’s plans for reform, although the American president has continually said his reform package makes no mention of Canada, nor does he refer to the north of the border option in his speeches supporting reform.

Obama has merely talked of a public option added to existing  private-sector insurers. Obama said as long as the private insurers have a good product and the government plan sustains itself through premiums and other non-tax revenue, the private sector will be able to compete with government health insurance.

Using an example of first-hand anecdotal evidence, my father, while in the U.S., spent thousands of dollars on tests and a hospital stay for what was suspected to be a heart problem. When he returned to Canada, a suspicious doctor dismissed the idea of a heart problem and instead focused on finding out why his sense of balance was jeopardized. He immediately ordered an MRI — not of his heart, but of my father’s head, which was performed within a week. The MRI showed the doctor’s suspicions were well founded, as my father had a brain tumour. Two weeks later, my father was under a surgeon’s knife. When the surgeon reported the results of the 8 1/2-hour operation, he said he removed a tumour the size of golf ball.

In no way do I blame the American doctors or the American system for failing to discover my father was suffering from a brain tumour. Instead, I focus on being thankful that a Manitoba doctor was able to diagnose the real problem and a skilled Manitoba surgeon was able to remove the tumour.

Senator Charles Grassly said in a country with “government-run health care,” Senator Ted Kennedy, who has a brain tumour, would not get the care he is receiving in the U.S. due to his age. Obviously this is a patently false statement, implying the U.S. system is the best in the world and all other countries with “socialized” medicine suffer from inadequate health care. Grassly should note that my father was 83 years old when he received his operation last October and he has never been denied follow-up treatment.

If any country rations health care, it is the U.S. Private insurance companies regularly deny patients certain treatments in order to keep costs down, while about 40-million Americans are uninsured and without access to timely treatment.

The danger of using anecdotal evidence is that for nearly every incident in support of one side, another instance can be found to support the opposition. For example, I could mention the case of my brother, who went to the U.S. seeking treatment for cancer. The advice he received from the American doctors was to return to Canada where he could receive equally good and effective treatment. My brother took their advice, received his treatment in Ottawa where he lives and is now cancer free. 

Simply building up the anecdotal evidence does not prove anything one way or another. While Canada’s health care system does have its problems and faults, it does not falter in providing its citizens with health care when required.

“We have a system that provides universal coverage — the flaw in the American system is that they first check the size of your wallet, not the size of your need,” said Ontario Health Minister David Caplan (Yahoo! News)

Long ago, Canadians decided health care was a societal benefit and as such should be funded through a government-run single-payer system. On the other hand, Americans long ago decided the government has only a limited role to play in their daily lives, which is at the heart of the fear-mongering being trumpeted that has no basis in fact. 

The Washington Post recently quoted Hamish Meldrum, the chairman of the British Medical Association, who was amazed by the “jaw-dropping untruthful attacks” used by American critics, who demonize Britain’s and Canada’s “socialized medicine.”

But the real test of any health care system is outcome, such as life expectancy, and not anecdotal evidence. In this regard, the Canadian system — as does the British — outperforms the U.S. at a much lower cost.