Quill and Quire

Canada's magazine of book news and reviews

Chronic Condition: Why Canada’s Health Care System Needs to Be Dragged into the 21st Century

by Jeffrey Simpson

Canadians routinely claim that no policy issue is more important to them than public health care, yet no one wants to have a frank conversation about the sacrifices necessary to keep it. In an attempt to redress this oversight, veteran Globe and Mail national affairs columnist Jeffrey Simpson has written a serious and thoughtful new book on the subject – a book that seems destined to be overlooked.

Simpson opens with a pithy aphorism that captures the essence of the matter: “Medicare is the third rail of Canadian politics. Touch it and you die.” Since at least the election of 2000, when Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day felt compelled to raise a handwritten placard reading “No 2-Tier Healthcare” during a leaders’ debate, it has been electoral suicide to question the political orthodoxy where health care is concerned. This clearly frustrates Simpson, and it should frustrate a whole lot more Canadians.

Simpson’s thoroughly researched book employs a mixture of first-hand reporting (including dispatches from a hospital emergency room), the findings of a variety of international health-care studies, and the author’s decades of experience covering Canadian politics. He persuasively argues that our vaunted health-care system is not only less perfect than we tend to think, but is in need of a substantial overhaul.

Aside from the unwillingness of politicians to act on these issues, or even broach the need for reform, Simpson cites our obsession with the U.S.’s comparative woes as a significant part of the problem. Canada’s health-care system, the author contends, ought to be compared to that of Britain, Australia, or Sweden, not America. One of the problems with shifting focus, however, is that the other comparisons might not prove so favourable.

Simpson does his best to hold the reader’s attention despite the challenges of subject matter that can be highly technical and somewhat dry. It is probably too much to expect that a significant number of Canadians will read this book and be spurred to action, but hopefully it will push a few brave policymakers to consider the future of Canada’s health-care system and the innovations needed to preserve it into the future.