When Elizabeth Cardno was an academic studying access to healthcare, she never thought she'd be so affected by it. Now it's become a critical issue in her life.

The Hamilton resident followed her interest in healthcare all the way to a PhD. She traveled to the UK for research, where she discovered two revelatory ideas — everyone had access to a family physician, and patients had easy access to their own medical records.

When Cardno brought up these ideas to a panel at a Canadian Medical Association (CMA) town hall Wednesday, it was personal.

"I am an applicant of ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Program)," she told them. "I have been for 19 months. I will be turned down because I haven't had a family physician, and that's what is required.

"I am having the kind of experience I have been studying."

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Dr. Anna Reid, left, joins Mark Chamberlain and Dr. Dale Guenter on the town hall panel. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Cardno was one of about 200 who attended the meeting at Mohawk College. It was the second of five meetings across Canada for the National Dialogue on Health Care Transformation. The CMA will use the feedback to compile a report. It will also inform the association's advocacy efforts, said Dr. Anna Reid, CMA president.

Many attendees told stories about the inequality of a health care system they said favours those with higher incomes in better neighbourhoods compared to those at an economic and social disadvantage.

"We don't have a two-tiered system," said Hamilton doctor Dale Guenter, one of five panelists. "We have a six or seven or eight-tiered system and we all know it."

Doctors 'pick and choose'

Cardno became acutely aware when she developed a degenerative illness that sent her into a bureaucratic system that she says costs taxpayers more than necessary.

"I negotiated several health care procedures through walk-in clinics and it was terrible," she said. "There was no assurance that the information was where it should be and I knew that it was costing the system a tremendous amount. As a patient, I was left to negotiate that on my own."

The problem, Cardno said, is that physicians are "picking and choosing" patients and where they practice medicine. Until that's fixed, "we can graduate as many doctors as we are able, and we will still have people without a doctor."

Other attendees talked about quality of life issues in Hamilton, where residents in poorer neighbourhoods have shorter life expectancies than those in higher-income areas. Some mentioned the need for pedestrian-friendly streets, while others pointed to some residents lacking the basic needs of food and shelter.

These issues are not unique to Hamilton, Reid said afterward.

Access to health care an issue across the country

"It's a story we could see in downtown Ottawa," she said.

"It happens in Yellowknife where I'm from. It happens in downtown Vancouver where I've lived before. It's in Montreal. It's everywhere across this country."

The first meeting was in Winnipeg. The others will be in Charlottetown, Calgary and Montreal. Nursing consultant Debbie Sheehan and Trivaris president Mark Chamberlain also sat on the Hamilton panel, along with John Geddes, Ottawa bureau chief of Maclean's magazine.

Local anti-poverty activist Darlene Burkett wished there was time to take more questions from the floor.

Although the speakers who made it to the microphone were diverse, "it still didn't really capture how much information you really could get from the people that were there."