Canadian hospitals should follow Scotland and Wales and abolish hospital parking fees because they burden patients, a medical journal editorial argues.

"Parking fees amount to a user fee in disguise," Dr. Rajendra Kale, editor in chief of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, wrote Monday.

"Those opposed to scrapping parking fees for patients need to recognize that such fees are, for all practical purposes, user fees and a barrier to health care. Using revenue generated from such surrogate user fees for health care is against the health policy objective of the Canada Health Act and could become the subject of a legal challenge," he concluded.

Kale said Canada needs patient-friendly politicians such as Nicola Sturgeon or Edwina Hart, who he called instrumental in abolishing parking fees in public hospitals in Scotland and Wales.

The British politicians recognized that parking fees are a barrier to health care that add avoidable stress to patients, Kale said.

The running meter is a distraction that interferes with medical appointments, he argued.

"I think that parking fees can  — and sometimes do  — interfere with the quality of the interaction physicians have with patients," Kale said in an interview, noting he's seen parking fees affect the interaction he has with patients at the Ottawa Hospital.

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Patients who have often waited weeks to see a doctor may try to end a consultation abruptly when they realize they'll have to pay for another hour of parking.

"This is parking-centred health care, which is not compatible with patient-centred health."

What's more, Canadian patients who visit hospitals may have to travel great distances where local public transportation is not an option, the editorial said.

Contrary to what hospital administrators may claim, phasing out parking fees wouldn't be a wallop for hospital pocketbooks, Kale suggested.

At the Ottawa Hospital, parking fees are projected to bring in about $10.8 million out of a $1.16 billion revenue stream (excluding revenue from parking).

Tom Closson, who has run several large hospitals and is CEO of the Ontario Hospital Association, countered that parking fees do help finance patient care.

Punishing patients

When CBC Radio's White Coat, Black Art devoted a show to hospital parking frustrations last month, the show received complaints about trouble finding a spot, problems paying, and annoying rules and procedures, as well as positive experiences such as being pleasantly surprised by free parking.

The show's host, Dr. Brian Goldman, supported the editor's call to abolish hospital parking fees.

"I think hospital parking fees should be abolished because they punish patients," Goldman said.

Goldman agreed that exorbitant parking fees may discourage patients from seeking medical attention and may also discourage loved ones and friends from visiting sick patients in hospital.

"Let's not forget that with hospital cutbacks, loved ones and friends are taking on an increased burden of care of hospitalized patients," he said, noting family members often feed loved ones, take them for walks, help with physiotherapy and perform other unpaid duties. 

"The idea that hospitals don't give a break on parking fees to those individuals is unfair."

With files from CBC's Mark Quinn and The Canadian Press