Transparency in Canadian Healthcare

Last week I posted an X-ray of my right foot that I received after spraining my ankle. I knew when I went in that I would want copies (who wouldn’t?!), so before getting into place to have the X-rays taken I made sure to ask the radiologist/practitioner who was working with me. He immediately said “yes”, that I would just have to speak with the receptionist.

After having the X-rays taken, I hobbled out to the front desk where the receptionist seemed startled that I was standing in front of him. He stared at me until I spoke. I told him that I’d like to get a copy of the X-rays that were just taken. He hastened to tell me that oh no, they don’t normally do that, and he’ll have to speak to the doctor, etc etc.. He went away for a few minutes and then returned to tell me again that they don’t normally give copies unless there is a fracture and this would be a special exception. He made a pretty big deal about what I had thought would be very little extra trouble. After all, they were already making copies for my family doctor.

I left the office frustrated. I felt like they had been on the verge of denying me something that should really just be available to me. They had information pertaining to me and my health; I should have more right to those materials than anyone else on the planet.

Another X-ray of my right foot.

I just read this article by Dr. Makary (a surgeon at Johns Hopkins in the US) calling for transparency and accountability in the American health system.

This got me thinking about our system here in Canada. How transparent are we? Dr. Makary makes a point about there being no (or few) stats or useful information available to the public about hospitals, so potential patients cannot make informed decisions. These same patients will check online descriptions, recommendations, and ratings for restaurants before sitting down to eat. Shouldn’t they have a similar opportunity for something as important as their health?

After moving to Vancouver I went in search of a new family doctor for my partner and I. The first thing I did is go to the official website for the College of Physicians & Surgeons of British Columbia to look for doctors who were accepting new patients. Armed with a list, I then looked at online reviews by google-ing each potential doctor and using Healthcare Reviews. I and those close to me have had many experiences involving medical doctors who provide obviously incorrect diagnoses, and poor suggestions of prescription drugs that lead to uncomfortable consequences (for the patients). However, I also think the first two family doctors I had growing up were chosen because of their convenient locations. This time, I was keen to find someone good.

For family doctors at least, there is a reasonable amount of reviews online. But what about the rest of the system? I had to fight (sort of) to get copies of my X-rays, but the last time I saw my family doctor, she told me that I can see the results of blood tests online! I found a GP using online reviews, but I still haven’t found a dentist. Because an evidence-based approach is very important to me, finding a physiotherapist for my ankle that I didn’t think would prescribe power-bands or reiki has been very difficult (I think I succeeded, but I haven’t had an appointment yet, so we’ll see).

In a quick google search for ‘transparency in the Canadian health system’ I came across the ‘Health Council of Canada‘ that advocates for transparency in healthcare. Unfortunately, they only do so in Saskatchewan, and claim to be the first such organization in Canada. Despite this claim, I also learned of the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI), a federally funded group that collects and distributes information about the quality of healthcare across Canada. They even have this nifty (but slow) tool that theoretically should allow me to compare hospital performance across the country. That is what it claims to do, but I will never know for sure because it loads so slowly.

At this point, I’m not sure what to conclude about what I’ve seen and learned about our system in Canada. For a number of areas there are tools and outlets for getting information at both a small scale (e.g. individual doctors and specific test results) as well as a large scale (e.g. hospitals, provinces, general performance across the country). However, in some places there holes and lags. At the smaller scale, there aren’t enough dentist reviews for me to make an informed choice, and getting copies of my X-rays was trickier than it should have been. At the larger scale, the tool for assessing hospitals is too slow to be effective for general use, and the reports provided by CIHI don’t report their data very effectively: In ‘A Snapshot of Health Care in Canada as Demonstrated by Top 10 Lists‘ are they presenting totals across the country, or averages per hospital? If the latter, there really ought to be error bars so we can see how variable these values are. If the former (i.e. totals), well, I think averages would be more informative for a general consumer like me… especially if they further disseminated the information by province or county.

Comparing Scars and Stories

I was going to do a blog post about the psychology behind fascination with scars and minor injuries (bruises, scrapes, etc), but all I can find on the internet are articles encouraging people not to be ashamed of scars, social commentary on blemish-free models, advertisements for scar removal, and stuff to do with the Lion King. A Web of Science search of “injury” and “pride” wasn’t helpful either, though interestingly there was a remarkable number of articles about injuries on fruit.

Example of an article hit from Web of Science when you search “injury” and “pride”

This has made me wonder. Is it unusual that I find (my own) injuries fascinating (even if they’re annoying, debilitating and often embarrassing)? I’m definitely not alone in being proud of scars; I’ve had countless discussions comparing scars or bruises and their stories. People do it in films and stories all the time.

Comparing scars seems like a pretty human thing to do. I think I remember a phrase “Every scar has a story.” So why is there so little literature or internet content on it? Maybe my google-fu just needs more work.

All this was spurred by a recent (and foolish) injury I had rock climbing. The injury itself is annoying and embarrassing (in some ways), but it DID lead to me getting some X-rays. It’s the X-rays that I find fascinating. This is what the inside of my foot looks like!!

X-ray of my right foot.

Peter and the Spider (belated)

During this past June I was browsing my Facebook feed and found a highly amusing status update from my friend Peter Christian about an imaginary interaction he had with a spider over his lunch one sunny afternoon.

In reply, I drew this comic while eating my own lunch sitting in a pub near UC Davis (where I was visiting for field work at the time). You’ll have to excuse the dismal quality; I drew it in my field notebook and digitized it using my cellphone camera.


I’ve renamed my website from “Something Clever [Here]” to “A Biologist Walks Into A Bar…”. This is because there are several other sites on the internet that are called Something Clever Here (or some variation on that). There’s even several other blogs by that name. It turns out that the name I thought was tres original is actually not that original at all.

I think this new name is more versatile anyway. If everything works out, this site may metamorphose into a site where more people are contributing and then the title can be morphed to suite the new contributors. E.g. “A Biologist and an Astronomer Walk Into A Bar…”, or perhaps “A Biologist, an Astronomer, and a VFX Programmer Walk Into A Bar”. You get the idea.

Hopefully the new branding doesn’t turn out too confusing. It’s still!

Life Dailies

I’m working on getting a new feature working.

Every day (or almost every day) I’ll draw a little cartoon that represents something that happened in my life on the previous day. I started doing this in high school, making great use of my agenda. I stopped when I moved to Japan, started again briefly as an undergrad, and this fall, I’m revisiting the project as a graduate student.

I’ll be posting these cartoons one day at a time as “A Life Scientist’s Life Dailies”. On the right side of the home page there is a photo of the day called “LSL Daily” – that’s the most recent cartoon, and it links to the album with the rest. There’s also a new tab between “Home” and “Research” called “A Life Scientist’s Life Dailies” where the daily drawing can also be found.

I normally draw these while riding the train and/or bus, so they often have a sketchy, shaky quality about them. If they don’t, I might departed from tradition to draw it over a coffee. If I have extra time or am extra inspired, I may ink them (on the page or digitally), but in general they will be in pencil to keep the amount of time the project takes down to a reasonable level.

Drawing Daily

Departing from tradition (drawing while on transit) to draw my daily while eating breakfast at SFU.

The first one I’ve posted is for Labour Day (Monday September 3rd). Tomorrow I’ll add the cartoon for Tuesday September 4th and so on, maintaining the ~2 week buffer just in case I miss a day or two and have to go back. The image itself is currently a photograph of the original drawing. When I get my hands on a scanner, the image quality and clarity will increase.

I’m experimenting with the best way to post these in WordPress. Right now it’s all powered by a photo album widget, but for some reason I’m having trouble getting the album itself to display on the page. Instead, there’s a lot of link-clicking to get the to album itself. Sorry about that. Persevere! You’ll find the content eventually.

Seeking Volunteers!

We are looking for volunteers in the Roitberg Lab!

Are you looking for experience in a research laboratory? Are you interested in ecology, evolution, pest management and/or insects? Are you enthusiastic and hard-working?!?!

Are you willing to commit to 4 hours per week between September and December?

If so, please check out this opportunity to volunteer with us Roitberg-ians. I’m looking forward to meeting you!!