Documentary Review: ‘Waiting to Die: Canada’s Health Care Crisis’

by EditorK

Aaron Gunn’s latest doc is a timely contribution to the public conversation about health care in Canada

BC Ambulance Service ground transport parked by Emergency Department at Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster, British Columbia, April 2014. (Canuckle/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Susan Martinuk
Updated: September 1, 2023 


What’s wrong with Canadian health care? And how can we fix it?

These are no longer just rhetorical questions—they are passionate inquiries that demand a response from our political leaders. NOW.

They are posed by almost every Canadian who, in recent times, has tried to obtain health care for themselves or their loved ones. It doesn’t matter if they need cancer treatments, hip operations, or an appointment with a family doctor to get a prescription—there is always a wait and there are no guarantees of accessing care in time.

These experiences are forcing Canadians to recognize that our health-care system has to undergo radical change, and that’s why Aaron Gunn’s latest documentary, “Waiting to Die: Canada’s Health Care Crisis” makes such a timely and substantive contribution to the public conversation about health care.

Gunn is an independent journalist and filmmaker who has gained a high profile for his thought-provoking and common-sense approach to complex issues such as Vancouver’s opioid epidemic and illegal drug crisis. He brings this same critical insight to “Waiting to Die,” dissecting the failures of our health-care system, showing us why the system is now in rapid decline, and then offering concrete ideas to bring our 60-year-old medical system into the 21st century.

So, how bad is Canadian health care?

Sadly, most of us already know the answer: There aren’t enough doctors or nurses. Beds are in short supply. Imaging technology is limited. There aren’t enough workers to keep emergency departments open. Waitlists for specialists and treatment can be years long. Thousands have died while waiting for care. On top of all that, our rapidly aging population will make it even more difficult to reverse these trends.

Gunn speaks to all of these issues using statistics and images that could easily convince viewers this is a health-care system in a third-world country. He also uses interviews with doctors and patients to remind us that human suffering is at the core of the problem—and therefore a shift back to timely patient care has to be at the heart of the solution.

He examines some of the underlying factors that got us to this place: a bloated bureaucracy, global/fixed budgets (where patients deplete budgets instead of add capital), and unions (that have an agenda that resists change so they can maintain a monopoly on human resources). Most Canadians are unaware of their impact, yet, operating independently and/or synergistically, these factors feed inefficiency, compromise care, and cripple health-care delivery.

One of the most telling conversations focused on the almost 2,000 Canadian nurses who live in Southern Ontario and commute to Michigan each day to work in American clinics and hospitals. There, they are highly prized and offered a better work environment, increased pay, bonuses, and a schedule that works for them. Their time is spent on patient care instead of paperwork. Overall, it seems like a worthy payoff for a half-hour commute.

When searching for answers, Gunn looks to Sweden, a nation that has successfully operated a parallel public-private system for decades—and Canadians will be pleasantly surprised at how this was accomplished.

Like Canada, Sweden faced long waitlists and an overwhelmed universal care system. In the 1990s, it introduced private competition and choice into the health-care system, which quickly increased capacity and efficiency, and decreased wait times.

These innovations came with a patient guarantee—if the public system cannot get you into a specialist or treatment within 90 days, the government will pay for you to be treated at a privately run clinic. Everybody wins.

Most of the Swedish system remains public, no one individual or sector of society is left behind, and data shows that doctors/nurses have not abandoned the public system. Reform has made it one of the top-ranked systems in the world.

Gunn’s presentation of the Swedish system is both intriguing and convincing. It shows Canada what can be done when there is a willingness to look at innovative solutions from countries where health care works.

In Canada, health-care delivery remains a government monopoly and, therefore, the biggest hurdle to change is … politics.

Gunn ventures into the ties between politics and health care to show how any discussion of health-care change is quickly stymied by false rhetoric about “American-style” or “two-tier” health care. Gunn highlights NDP leaders Jagmeet Singh and Rachel Notley as they twist talk about health-care reform into warnings about “for profit” care.

It’s hard to have a grownup conversation about fixing health care when one side of the political spectrum shuts down legitimate conversation and, instead, feeds the public fear with erroneous information.

Canada’s health-care system needs to evolve to provide modern care. Gunn’s documentary shows us how innovation can redefine health care, so it once again represents the Canadian spirit.


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