Why health care can’t change

When it comes to fixing health care, governance matters more than policy

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Shawn WhatleyFew voters had first-hand experience with hallway medicine or Canada’s world-famous wait times before the pandemic. Lockdowns changed everything. Health policy failure moved from fear-filled headlines into a tangible crisis everyone could feel.

Failure begs for better, or even new policy, to fill gaps. Planners and policy writers jump to offer solutions: surgicenters, funding reallocation, redesigned models of care, and so on.

New policy, however, cannot fix old policy unless we know why the old failed in the first place. Most policy fails on implementation, not from bad design. Furthermore, we cannot fill policy gaps unless we understand why gaps exist. Gaps form around constraints and incentives, not from a lack of creativity. The policy environment dictates viable policy options.

How a system functions has more to do with how its governed than with the policy ideas in play. Implementation failure, constraints, and incentives all fall under the larger umbrella of governance. Governance and policy overlap, but they are different.

To fix health care, we need to start with governance: how do we make decisions? Who gets to make them? If we do not, a new policy will deliver the same old results.

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Take surgicenters as an example. Surgeons and specialists join together to build a non-hospital, outpatient surgical facility. Each centre offers a specific basket of specialty care, for example, eye, orthopedic, or endoscopy services. Surgicenters can provide comfort, convenience, quality, and efficiency that hospitals struggle to match.

Surgicenters exist around the world. They are not new. In Canada, we have been trying to move care out of hospitals for decades to save money and shorten waitlists. Why aren’t Canadian cities littered with surgicenters?

Current incentives and constraints make surgicenters impractical and onerous. While hospitals supply nursing care, equipment, and use of the facility, physicians get to use everything but do not pay for it, making non-hospital facilities a tough sell. On top of this, billing rules, regulation of independent health facilities, licensing for necessary lab and imaging services, as well a basket of other restrictions all weave together into a policy environment intolerant of (publicly funded) independent facilities.

We do not need a policy about surgicenters. We need research on why surgicenters do not exist in the first place and what to do about it.

Thomas Sowell, an American economist and author, said once, “The most important decision about every decision is who gets to make the decision.”

Before making a change, every hospital administrator must ask, “Who needs to be in the room?” Spectacular new policy will fail even more spectacularly if you ignore governance. Informal governance can matter even more. Decision-makers are often not the ones listed on the organizational chart: colleagues influence through personality without title or position.

Peter Drucker, the legendary management consultant, once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” We can say the same about health policy: governance eats policy for breakfast.

Dr. Dave Williams, a former astronaut and leader at NASA, served as CEO at Southlake Regional in Newmarket, Ont. He said, “It’s not clear who runs the hospital.” He was making an observation, not a complaint. “Compared to what I’m used to, it’s challenging to get things done.”

Without clarity and fidelity to best practices, governance will drift. Sowell, again, sums this up:

Even within democratic nations, the locus of decision making has drifted away from the individual, the family, and voluntary associations of various sorts and toward government. And within government, it has moved away from elected officials subject to voter feedback and toward more insulated governmental institutions, such as bureaucracies and the appointed judiciary.

Is this a problem in Canada? Brian Lee Crowley, managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, thinks so. Governance drift leads to central design – a temptation for all political parties.

In his book, Gardeners and Designers: Understanding the Great Fault Line in Canadian Politics, Crowley dilates on how gardeners approach governance. A gardener prepares the soil, removes waste, provides support, and tends to progress. Gardeners celebrate the surprise inherent in what grows and blooms. They do not manage growth for a specific policy outcome they designed in advance.

Designers dream about how to make health care better. Gardeners ask the more important question: how can we get good ideas to grow? A gardening approach to governance leaves plenty of essential (gardening) work for government. It empowers those closest to the problem and leaves design, experimentation, and implementation to them.

We cannot try to “fix” health care with new policy. Without good governance, new policy will struggle with implementation like all the old policy. We need to do first things first. Governance eats policy for breakfast.

Shawn Whatley is a physician, past president of the Ontario Medical Association, and a Munk senior fellow at Macdonald-Laurier Institute. He is the author of  When Politics Comes Before Patients – Why and How Canadian Medicare is Failing.

Shawn is a Troy Media Thought Leader. For interview requests, click here.


The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are theirs alone and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.

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