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How the CMA president’s health care fight was shaped by her father’s dementia

August 2012 - Dr. Anna Reid, an emergency room physician in Yellowknife, takes over as president of the Canadian Medical Association at the CMA's annual conference in Yellowknife this week.

Bill Braden/The Globe and Mail

The president of the Canadian Medical Association revealed on Tuesday that she almost resigned her post because of the demands of caring for her elderly father with dementia.

Just before taking up her duties heading the CMA in August, 2012, her mother, Barbara, was diagnosed with acute leukemia, contracted an infection and died suddenly. Her mother was the sole caregiver for Dr. Anna Reid's 92-year-old father, Ian, who had been on a waiting list for a nursing-home bed for two years.

Dr. Reid lived in Yellowknife while her father lived in Hamilton. She could not move him because there is a three-month waiting period for medicare eligibility when moving from one provincial or territorial jurisdiction to another and there are no private nursing homes in the Northwest Territories.

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"I was in a complete panic, as you can imagine," she said.

But the experience helped to galvanize her belief that the health system needs to become more patient- and family-centred, and that must begin by addressing the state of care for seniors and health inequities.

The CMA, which is holding its annual meeting this week in Calgary, is pushing hard for federal, provincial and territorial governments to adopt a comprehensive seniors' health strategy, one that would ensure better access to home care, long-term care and palliative care at the end of life. Currently, only hospital and physician services are universally covered by public health insurance, so many of the services seniors' need are not necessarily covered, or affordable.

"No doubt my personal story is shared by many Canadians," and in particular those who are long-distance caregivers, Dr. Reid said. "The caregiver's stress, the anxiety and dealing with the complete lack of resources available."

The solution was for her and her spouse, Linda Kalbum, to relocate to Ottawa (where the CMA is based), and to find her father a bed in a private care facility. Dr. Reid was quick to point out that she was lucky to have the flexibility and financial means to do so, an option not available to most Canadians.

Dr. Reid has been a vocal advocate for addressing social and economic inequities, a theme she returned to in her farewell address to the CMA convention. "The biggest barrier to good health is poverty," she said. "We cannot be leaders in health care and in our society without addressing health inequity."

She said that if political leaders are serious about reducing health costs, then they should ensure that all Canadians have an adequate income, housing and education (commonly called the social determinants of health), in addition to access to medical care. "Canada's premiers are fond of saying they want and need to bend the cost curve on health-care spending. Well, an estimated one in every five dollars spent on health is directly attributable to the social determinants of health."

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Dr. Reid said she was especially proud about a series of town halls that the CMA sponsored on the topic "What Makes Us Sick?" along with the practical advice it provided to physicians on addressing health equity.

Dr. Reid will be succeeded as president of the CMA, which represents the country's 78,000 physicians, residents and medical students, by Louis Francescutti, an emergency medicine physician and professor of public health in Edmonton.

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