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Monday, October 21, 2013

A role for physicians in health reform

Sophia Harrison is in her first year of medical school at the University of Northern British Columbia. She was a winner in the Health Innovation Challenge, earning her a summer internship at the Health Council of Canada.

What role can physicians play in health care reform?  This question has been on my mind since completing a summer internship at the Health Council of Canada and starting my first year of medical school. 

On the job at the Health Council, I learned that the 2003 and 2004 health accords did not yield the transformative change promised by politicians. Rather, our health care system is lagging behind the needs of an aging and diversifying population and it consistently ranks in the middle of the pack compared to other high-income countries. After reviewing a decade of health care reform, the Health Council’s September 2013 report Better Health, Better Care, Better Value for all, calls for a unified approach to reform, with strong federal leadership and provincial collaboration. In addition to purposeful political leadership, I believe physicians have an important role to play in advocating on behalf of the general public for system improvements. 

General practitioners (GPs) are the front-line of the health care system and trained in a wide range of specialties. On any given day a GP may treat the whole gamut of illness from acute to complex chronic conditions, as well as providing preventative care and health education. The relationship that a family physician has with his or her patients is fundamental to their practice and essential for the provision of high-quality health care in the diagnosis and treatment of disease. A strong relationship is characterized by trust, mutual respect, and responsibility.

In large part due to the strength of the physician-patient relationship, the general public typically respects the judgment of physicians, even outside the realm of clinical medicine. Physicians who choose to treat patients both as people and as a population can leverage their standing to advocate for change at the policy level.  If a physician's mandate is to help the sick, it follows that physicians have a vested interest in advocating for enhanced collaboration and teamwork, for inspiring new ways of thinking and learning, and for becoming engaged in healthcare planning, priority setting, strategy development and patient-centred care delivery.

It is up to each physician to define a role for him or herself. As my colleagues and I embark on our careers, we are laying down the foundation for the practitioners we will become.  My experience at the Health Council has given me a sense of the importance of understanding policies that affect health care, and the efficacy, in terms of health outcomes, of change and innovation at the system level.  In this formative period, I am making a commitment to stay engaged and invest energy in improving the health care system we are all a part of.  I am confident I am not the only one.

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