For many months during the COVID-19 pandemic, satisfaction with the performance of the provincial government in British Columbia was one of the highest in Canada.
While Ontario and Alberta struggled to connect with the population on issues such as restrictions and mandates, there was never a time when fewer than half of British Columbians were content with what Victoria, and the provincial health authorities, suggested.
In November 2020, at a time when most Canadians eagerly awaited a timetable for COVID-19 vaccinations, Research Co. and Glacier Media asked British Columbians about the health-care system. The results could be summed up succinctly: just over one in 10 residents were critical of the state of affairs, there was no exceedingly significant problem and the appetite for private medicine was low.
Almost two years later, the views have shifted dramatically. The proportion of British Columbians who believe that health care in the province has “so much wrong with it that we need to completely rebuild it” has almost tripled, from 11 per cent in 2020 to 31 per cent in 2022. Pessimism about the health-care system is more prevalent among women (34 per cent), British Columbians aged 55 and over (40 per cent) and residents of Vancouver Island (also 40 per cent).
In late 2020, more than one in five British Columbians (22 per cent) told us that health care in the province “worked well, and only minor changes were needed to make it work better.” This month, the proportion of residents who have this feeling has fallen to 13 per cent.
The biggest discrepancy between the surveys arrives when we query British Columbians about the biggest problem facing the health-care system right now. In 2019, only 20 per cent of respondents picked a shortage of doctors and nurses, well below the 38 per cent who selected long waiting times. By 2020, the proportion of British Columbians who were primarily concerned about not having access to medical professionals rose by four points to 24 per cent.
In 2022, the situation is clearly more dire. Half of British Columbians (50 per cent) identify a shortage of doctors and nurses as the biggest problem facing the health-care system now, up 26 points since 2020 and well ahead of all other issues. Long waiting times is a distant second with 18 per cent, followed by bureaucracy and poor management at 10 per cent.
Concerns about a shortage of doctors and nurses are severe across every region of the province, from 43 per cent in Metro Vancouver, to 52 per cent in northern B.C. and the Fraser Valley, and to a province-wide high of 67 per cent in Vancouver Island.
Faced with limited access to medical professionals, some British Columbians are re-evaluating their options. This year, a third of the province’s residents (33 per cent) say they are willing to travel to another country to have quicker access to medical services that currently have long waiting times, up six points since 2020.
The numbers are stable when the province’s residents are asked if they would pay out of their own pocket to have quicker access to medical services here, with 40 per cent saying this is an option they would explore if they were able to. Travelling abroad has become more appealing than exploring private delivery.
The 2020 poll was conducted just weeks after a BC Supreme Court justice ruled that access to private health care was not a constitutional right, even if wait times for care under the public system are too long. At the time, almost half of British Columbians (46 per cent) agreed with the decision, while 31 per cent disagreed. Again, the adage of a poll being “a snapshot in time” rings true. In late 2020, there was an immense level of satisfaction with the way the B.C. government managed the pandemic, as evidenced by the results of the provincial election.
Two years later, there is a significant change. The outright endorsement of the BC Supreme Court justice’s decision on private medicine has dropped to 37 per cent (down nine points), while dismay has risen to 49 per cent (up 18 points).
It is certain that the perceptions of British Columbians on the health-care system are not as positive as they used to be. The fact that half of the province’s residents identify a shortage of doctors and nurses as the biggest setback explains why a private health-care option is no longer derided. The provincial government’s ability to facilitate access to general practitioners will play a pivotal role on whether these perceptions worsen. If confidence in the viability of the health-care system can be restored, calls for private options will subside.
– Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.