The Current

Canadians too accepting of mediocre health care, says André Picard

Longtime health columnist André Picard tackles the biggest problems plaguing Canada's health-care system, and acknowledges the successes too.
After 30 years reporting on Canada's health-care system, André Picard describes it as 'islands of excellence in a sea of mediocrity.' (

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It was an encounter early on in André Picard's career as a health journalist that really shaped his approach to reporting.

Picard tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti that the incident happened near the start of the AIDS epidemic when Picard was sent to St. Michael's hospital to meet a patient.

He found a man in a bed with a big sign over it, warning visitors of the possibility of contamination because the man had AIDS. The bed sheets weren't changed, and food trays were left at the door. 

When Picard introduced himself and shook the man's hand — the patient burst into tears, confessing that no one had touched him for the three days that he'd been in the hospital. 

"To me it was an important lesson that what matters in health care is taking care of people. It's not the disease that you have to take care of, it's the person — to show them respect. And that's what he didn't get."
Money is the single most powerful drug we have in the world and it's really poorly prescribed, says health columnist André Picard. (Douglas &McIntyre)

Picard just celebrated his 30th anniversary at The Globe and Mail where he's a health columnist. His new book, Matters of Life and Death: Public Heath Issues in Canada, is a collection of his writing on major issues facing health care in Canada — from the criminalization of the mentally ill to dismal state of Indigenous health care in remote communities. 

As for the system as a whole, Picard says Canadians need to start demanding change.

"I think Canadians are too accepting of the mediocrity in our system."

He says we are all too willing to wait for eight hours in an emergency room and just accept it as the cost of free health services. 

We think we can cure what ills our system by just throwing more medical bodies at it.- André Picard

On his travels, Picard tells Tremonti he likes to visit hospitals and points to an innovative pilot project where chairs were removed in an emergency room

"They said we shouldn't have people waiting — why should we have chairs in the emergency [room]. I think we have to have more of that kind of thinking that we just don't accept these things that we see as normal."

In Canada, Picard notes we do deliver excellent health care "but not because of the system but in spite of the system."

He suggests issues in Canada's health-care system is not in the medicine, but in engineering and administrative problems.

"We don't often make that distinction. We think we can cure what ills our system by just throwing more medical bodies at it."

Meanwhile, he says politicians do a lot of firefighting, fixing small problems without actually overhauling the system and making drastic change. 

"It was wonderful when it was created, but it's not wonderful today."

Picard says there are reasons for hope, with innovative small scale projects being tried across the country. But he worries that they don't translate into bigger changes across the system. 

"To me that's the biggest frustration as a health reporter. I know we've resolved every single problem in our health system at least 10 times on a small scale. Our biggest single problem is not scaling up our successes," Picard tells Tremonti.

"When people ask me to describe medicare in a pithy way, I always describe it as Canada is islands of excellence in a sea of mediocrity is what we have in our health system. " 

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Liz Hoath.