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Don Martin: The doctor Trudeau dumped has a prescription for better health care


She has the right to hold a grudge, but declines to take any cheap shots.

Dr. Jane Philpott is over having Prime Minister Justin Trudeau toss her out of the Liberal caucus along with cabinet colleague Jody Wilson-Raybould for taking a principled stand against the PMO in the SNC Lavalin scandal five years ago.

The former federal health minister has more important issues now. The health care system is broken and she is on a crusade to start the healing.

Philpott’s prescription pad is her new book entitled “Health for All,” a concept that sounds almost too good to be possible in curing Canada’s overcrowded, severely-rationed, selectively-delivered health care.

The heart of her primary care plan would roll out something like this: A new arrival to an area would punch in their postal code and up would pop an assigned ‘primary care home’ with a team of doctors, nurse practitioners and support clinicians geographically obligated to accept them as a patient.

This dare-to-dream vision exists in other countries and is doable here, Philpott insists, a concept she compares to the right of a student to access a public school teacher in Canada.

But Philpott isn’t oozing confidence that Trudeau has the right stuff to go beyond his breathless rhetoric to actually fix what hinders patient care in Canada. And her skepticism applies to all party leaders.

“I’m not hearing the kind of commitment to get it done at the federal level from any party or even at the provincial level, with two or three exceptions,” she admits.

Philpott talks health care from multiple levels of professional and personal experience. She has administered health care in the wretched conditions of Central Africa, worked as family doctor in Stouffville, Ont. and immersed herself in a COVID-wracked long-term care centre at the height of the pandemic.

She’s experienced the unspeakable horror of having her daughter Emily die in her arms from a virulent meningococcemia infection while being rushed in vain to a hospital in Niger in 1991. 

And she has gone beyond being a family doctor to pioneering teams as a health care concept while nudging more students toward family care as dean of Health Services at Queen’s University.

We sat down in her office overlooking the Kingston waterfront this week to discuss the intractable problem of guaranteeing Canadians a front-door into health care, the better to avoid clogging up emergency wards by default or having patient health deteriorate for want of a family doctor.

We discussed how lucky I was to have a family doctor who detected a small outbreak of cancerous melanoma two years ago. Once diagnosed, surgical and cancer care was delivered fairly quickly and comprehensively to, fingers crossed here, beat it once and for all.

“What breaks my heart and what motivates me to get this message out is because for every person like you, there are people showing up in emergency with stage four cancer that would’ve been detected if they’d had a family doctor,” she said.

But, like everything else, better primary care is dependent on political will and directed dollars to deliver improved results. And that’s where Philpott's prescription could run into a reluctant pharmacist.

She suggests federal legislation forcing provinces to provide primary care for all while placing conditional strings on fiscal transfers to ensure it becomes a reality. And she argues more family doctors are obviously needed to reduce an onerous workload driving medical students away from general practice.

There are no juicy insights from her four-year life inside Trudeau’s government.

She does note, interestingly, how Trudeau’s staff urged her to drop the gloves and take partisan punches at the opposition parties instead of actually trying to answer questions in House of Commons. Sunny ways, it seems, were eclipsed by shadows very early in Trudeau’s reign.

File photo of Jane Philpott making an announcement about her political future ahead of the 2019 federal election in Markham, Ont., on May 27, 2019 (Nathan Denette / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

“I don’t think things turned out the way they were initially described,” she said. “The hyper partisanship is so built-in, it just became insurmountable.”

As for a federal government fostering toxic relations with premiers to repair health care in an area of provincial jurisdiction, well, “things are not looking good.”

“If we keep following our current trajectory we’re heading to an even worse and more divisive place. We’re going to need new kinds of leaders.”

So perhaps, you wonder, could there be a Philpott political comeback once Trudeau is gone from the scene? “I would never say never,” she said, smiling.

“I don’t miss the toxicity of it all, but I’m frustrated by what I see and it matters so much to our country and the people that depend on it being well run,” she said, adding, “Part of me would like to help influence changes on how we do business in Ottawa.”

It’s not in the book, but perhaps it only makes sense that the best fix for ailing health care is having this doctor back in the House.

That’s the bottom line.




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