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HACKETT: Health care funding and the message that wasn’t

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“I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.”

I couldn’t help but think of all the iconic phrases related to “I’m not a doctor,” which have been uttered for comedic value this week after the province’s press conference surrounding stabilizing primary care.

That first quote comes from Chris Robinson in a 1986 commercial about Vick’s Vapor Rub. Robinson famously played Dr. Rick Webber on General Hospital from 1978 to 1986.

Then there are the iconic scenes from Leslie Neilsen in the 1980 film Airplane. The scene starts with the flight attendant looking for a doctor and Nielsen, whose character is Dr. Rumack, answers the call. Shortly after he hilariously pulls chicken eggs out of a woman’s mouth, he talks with the captain.

Rumak: Captain, how soon can you land?

Captain Oveur : I can’t tell.

Rumack : You can tell me. I’m a doctor.

In my mind, the initial part of the scene always plays out with a panicked flight attendant asking if there’s a doctor on board. It’s been too long since I’ve seen that one, clearly.

All this went through my mind when Premier Smith said Thursday, “I’m not a doctor”.

Here I was, getting ready all week to recall some hilarious Christmas moments, like the time my Dad washed the car on Christmas morning or when he wrapped my cousins’ gift (a golf club) in duck tape.

But with the provincial health care system in chaos, the Christmas spirit and my inclination to bring some light-hearted family memories to the table slowly evaporated.

There was good news Thursday, wrapped in some serious evasion tactics.

Thursday, the province announced $200 million in funding to help stabilize the primary care system and also signed a historic deal with the federal government for $1.1 billion in health-care funding over the next three years.

Those are monumental deals that deserve proper praise. Those are deals which will help the long-term viability of Alberta’s health-care system. The province indicated that doctor retention is a key short-term focus for its funding and that couldn’t come at a better time. With a shortage of family physicians in the province, we need to, at the very least, keep the doctors we have.

In that presser, the province said nearly 700,000 Albertans don’t have a family doctor. An alarming number that is surely leading to plenty of pressure on our hospital care system. Hopefully, that funding helps bridge that gap.

Much of the rest of the press conference surrounded the growing circulation of respiratory illness in the province and what the province is doing to address the issue.

While Smith and Health Minister Adriana LaGrange avoided specifics about the importance of getting vaccinated during the flu and respiratory illness season, Alberta Medical Association president Dr. Paul Parks stepped up.

Of course, leave it to the real doctor to bring the warning we all needed to hear at a press conference about primary care. Parks, when asked about Alberta having its lowest flu vaccine rates in a decade, had this to say.

“It’s absolutely a problem and a concern. I’m a physician. Vaccines work. They really, truly work,” he said.

“I want to put this in perspective. What we need is more Albertans being vaccinated because it works and it helps to protect those people, but it helps protect the system.

“I’ll give some examples, we’re seeing two-year olds that are getting influenza and having encephalitis, which is an infection of the brain, that may actually be life-threatening. If they survive, they may never be normal again. We are seeing adults that are going to maybe need heart transplants from influenza because they’ve done so much damage to their heart.

“I want to just say, I am not a politician, I am a physician. So if Albertans can get their vaccines — there are two pieces. It will protect them, but our system right now — our hospitals are overflowing with sick people, with all respiratory viruses, but influenza is one of the highest right now.

“I just want to use this opportunity to urge Albertans and all Canadians… I would just love to urge everybody… I got it, my family got it. It’s protecting you, but it’s also protecting other people that are going to get sick and protecting our health care system so we can take care of people.”

The premier was asked what she thought is causing that downturn — the low turnout for Alberta’s flu campaign.

“I don’t know,” the premier answered shortly.

Smith then pointed out that people don’t look to politicians for medical advice. And that’s true. But politicians are also meant to be leaders.

Politicians are meant to be there to reassure the public in times of crisis. There was no comfort in Smith’s message — there was no light at the end of the tunnel or here’s how we can all help get out of this thing from the premier.

Hearing Parks talk about how desperate and trying the situation is in our hospitals and then having the premier simply shrug off questions about the importance of influenza vaccines does not seem helpful.

Maybe I just want to hold leaders to a higher standard than Smith believes they should be held to.

Public health experts across the country have said the only way to get people on board with vaccinations is to have clear, consistent messaging. Officials pointing to websites or old press releases is not a clear message. It’s not a strong message.

And I think that’s the point. The message is in the things that they are not saying rather than the things they are.

LaGrange pointed to the province spending half a million dollars for people to “look at the immunization that’s available to them, to have that discussion with their primary care providers”.

That just falls short of advocating for something a doctor, just a few minutes earlier, said is vital to protect our health-care system.

This government clearly picked a lane on this file and isn’t going to deviate from it.

For the sake of those people working their tails off to keep our health-care system functioning and those who hope the system can handle the sustained barrage of sickness it is facing now, let’s try and take solace in the advice and words of Dr. Parks.

Byron Hackett is the Managing Editor of the Red Deer Advocate and a Regional Editor of Black Press Media.



Byron Hackett

About the Author: Byron Hackett

Byron has been the sports reporter at the advocate since December of 2016. He likes to spend his time in cold hockey arenas accompanied by luke warm, watered down coffee.
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