by David Zitner and Grace Paterson

The Web page of the Capital District of Nova Scotia states “We’re here to treat you when you are sick, and help you stay well. At its heart, Capital Health stands for warmth, caring and optimism – a community striving together for better health.” The District also remarks that patients “are responsible to be an active, involved and informed member of your health care team.”

Sadly, platitudes and good intentions are not sufficient to help people who are sick, nor to help people to stay well. Moreover, it is unreasonable to expect patients to be active and involved when health organizations do not give patients the information they need to make thoughtful political and personal decisions about their own health care.

A recent sad event in Halifax reminded me of how important it is that patients remain involved in their care, and that patients must insist health organizations provide ALL of the information the patient needs to remind the health care organization to behave properly.

Alan Paterson, a strong contributor to Canada, saw his doctor, in January. He complained of a lump in his neck. The technical details are not relevant for this article; suffice to say the lump appeared to be related to the thyroid gland and was so large that it was displacing his trachea (breathing tube).

Doctors recognized the urgency of his condition and said “We will get you to surgery, for a biopsy, as soon as possible. Most people would assume that “as soon as possible” means one or two weeks. Unfortunately, for Mr. Paterson sometimes the meaning of “as soon as possible” is “not soon at all”

Several months later Mr. Paterson called to ask for a biopsy date and was told he must wait even longer. Finally, in August, Mr. Paterson complained of difficult breathing and was admitted to hospital because the thyroid mass was obstructing his windpipe. He died a few days after being admitted to hospital.

Canadian hospitals do not normally inform patients about the maximum acceptable wait. If Mr. Paterson had been told that 2-3 weeks was the longest acceptable waiting time he would have been able to forcefully remind the hospital that he was past the due date. Frequently hospitals do not provide patients with clear information about how long they will have to wait for treatment.

The Capital District and other Canadian Health Organizations have a strong belief that patients should participate and contribute to the care they receive. You can be a strong participant by insisting that hospitals give you clear information about the maximum appropriate waiting time for your condition and clear information about how long you will actually have to wait.

It is a tragedy that some Canadians must go to Bangalore and Boston for timely care. It is even more tragic when people suffer from unnecessary discomfort, dysfunction, and even death because no one told them not to wait too long.

David Zitner is AIMS Fellow in Health Care Policy. Grace Paterson is a friend and colleague. This article was written for the Seniors’ Advocate.