How the American health system is holding up compared with ours

How the American health system is holding up compared with ours

by Sue Jones
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How is the American health system is holding up compared with ours? The Omicron wave is revealing flaws everywhere, overwhelming weaknesses in every country. It’s also providing lessons on what might be fixed.

Health Coronavirus New York

A patient being brought to a hospital emergency entrance last week in New York City, where hospitals are more crowded than any time since an initial COVID-19 surge in March 2020. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Everyone’s got an opinion on health care, especially now, as Omicron tests our various systems, exposing their vulnerabilities and overwhelming weaknesses in an avalanche of illness.

Few, however, have Jenna Meloche’s perspective. 

She’s a Canadian nurse working in U.S. hospitals. She lives in Ontario, has nearly two dozen friends and family working in Canada’s medical system, and works for an agency that’s posted her in several American states through the pandemic.

So while health care may elicit potent emotions as a matter of national identity to some in Canada, and as a political litmus test to some in the U.S., for her it’s everyday life.

And it’s been exhausting lately. She said the health workers she knows in the U.S. are drained, mentally and physically, with many thinking of leaving the profession.

She’s hearing friends ask: “When does this end? When do I lose my wit’s end as a health-care provider and say, ‘I need to step away from nursing for my wellbeing?'”

Yet she fears her Canadian colleagues have it worse. 

Even before the pandemic, she said, she worked in Ontario and saw a lack of tools and resources, feeling physically exhausted after shifts in a feeling she compared to “drowning.”

Last week, another Ontario nurse wept during a CBC News interview and said staffing shortages would cost lives: “People are going to die because of a nursing shortage,” said Birgit Umaigba.

But make no mistake: for-profit U.S. hospitals have their own struggles. The COVID-19 surge is exposing different flaws in our widely different systems.

WATCH | Ontario nurse: People will ‘die’ because of staff shortages: 

Umaigba Nurse.jpg?Crop=1

Nursing shortage is ‘going to cost lives,’ says ICU nurse

Nurses are breaking down, crying and quitting because of the intense pressure they face on the job due to a severe staffing shortage, says Toronto intensive care unit (ICU) nurse Birgit Umaigba. 10:01

The strain on Canadian hospitals has prompted some analysis that Canada’s more cautious attitude exhibited during the pandemic is driven by a hard practical truth that we simply can’t keep things open like the U.S. has — because our health system would immediately crack.

The public data does support the idea that Omicron has filled Canadian hospitals faster, as its slightly fewer beds and far fewer nurses are buckling under current volumes. 

Stats Friday show non-ICU beds filled at 92 per cent in Ontario, 92 per cent in Alberta, and a staggering 152 per cent in Quebec, with cases still growing. The U.S. federal data Friday showed 79 per cent of beds filled nationwide, though jurisdictions have different ways of tallying beds.

But look closer, and it turns out U.S. intensive-care units are actually slightly more filled than in some Canadian provinces. 

Critical-care units in Massachusetts are packed and administrators have been desperately searching for beds.

Michigan hospitals have had military help for over a month handling their influx of patients, with Army doctors, nurses and support staff assisting at the hospital where Meloche has been working lately, Spectrum Health Butterworth in Grand Rapids.

Jenna Meloche

Jenna Meloche lives in Canada and works in the U.S. The nurse has spent the pandemic in Michigan, New York and Texas and says it’s been hard in U.S. hospitals. But she says it’s always harder for nurses in Canada. (Jenna Meloche)

An executive there says the reality is actually worse in Michigan than indicated by the public stats, which he said inflate the number of available beds by listing the number that are licensed, not the number actually staffed.

Chad Tuttle said bed capacity is near 100 per cent and the ICU capacity is over 100 per cent at Spectrum Health. 

It’s even worse in the emergency rooms, and COVID-19 is still spreading like wildfire, as evidenced by test-positivity rates there last week hitting a ghastly 40 per cent. 

“Every patient room is full,” said Tuttle, a vice-president at Spectrum Health West Michigan. 

“Which means they’re in hallways. The waiting rooms are full and there’s a line standing down the hallway waiting to get in.”

Meanwhile this latest variant is ripping through the staff. 

There were 850 employees in quarantine last week among the 31,000 working at Spectrum Health’s 14 hospitals in Michigan.

Tuttle actually wishes his country took a page from Canada’s playbook, which has had only one-third the U.S. death rate during the pandemic. 

He expressed frustration that his area is still holding mass super-spreader events, with thousands gathering at high-school and college sports games.

Different systems, different flaws

This pandemic has revealed different deficiencies in each country.

In Canada, it’s the mostly public system with fewer hospital beds per capita than the U.S., and far fewer than some European countries, along with many fewer nurses.

In the U.S., it’s the mostly private system that costs way more than Canada’s, leaves approximately 10 per cent of the population uninsured, and yields a lower life expectancy and more premature deaths.

And now U.S. hospitals are hurting financially; dozens have declared bankruptcy during this pandemic because they make money from elective surgeries that are on hold.


The U.S. has lost three times more people per capita to COVID than Canada. An exhibit at the Washington National Mall, seen here in September, paid homage to the deceased with hundreds of thousands of miniature white flags. (Daniel Slim/AFP/Getty Images)

One non-profit hospital, for example, at the University of Washington in Seattle, has been forced to postpone non-urgent surgeries until Jan. 14.

And Dr. Ali Mokdad suspects that delay could be extended because COVID-19 is battering that institution too.

“We are at 104 per cent [bed occupancy] right now,” said Mokdad, a professor at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.

“We are overwhelmed by COVID patients.” 

He said some hospitals will fail financially because of this surge.

How Canada’s systems can improve

One authority on Canadian health care uses the metaphor of a fire: COVID-19 has burned everyone, he says, it’s just burned everyone differently.

Michael Decter, a former deputy minister of health in Ontario and onetime chair of the Health Council of Canada, said Canadian hospitals are built to tolerate periodic overcrowding, with a seasonal surge that strains capacity to 110 or 120 per cent.

But he said nearly two years of COVID-19 has broken the playbook because there’s been no relief. 

One weakness in Canada? It over-relies on hospitals for things like day surgeries, which Decter said are handled in the U.S. at external facilities. This practice crowds hospitals, and it costs more money to do knee, hip and cataract surgeries here.

Another weakness is the dearth of online or virtual consultations, he said. 

Decter recalls attending a conference a few years ago where he learned one U.S. health provider was doing 20 per cent of its consultations virtually; by comparison, in Ontario, it was half of one per cent at the time. He said Canada has since ramped up but not to U.S. levels.

People Lining Up For Covid 19 Antigen Test Kits In Ottawa

People queue to collect COVID-19 antigen test kits at the Hazeldean Mall in Ottawa on Friday. While the Canadian health-care system promises public access, it’s also critiqued for rationing care. (Patrick Doyle/Reuters)

‘We tend to ration everything’

Finally, he said, Canada hasn’t trained enough nurses. 

Here’s where political philosophy kicks in. In the public system, he said, it would be politically toxic for governments to train too many nurses and have some wind up unemployed; the U.S. private system doesn’t have that problem.

He said Canada can do better than the status quo, which he describes as rationing care. 

He recalled talking to one Canadian emergency-room administrator who opined that people come into the waiting room, they wait six or eight hours, and if their problem isn’t serious, they go home.

“It’s not good,” he said. “We tend to ration everything.”

As for the U.S., he said, its system is burdened by massive costs — related to management and litigation, time-consuming disputes between hospitals and insurance companies, violence and gunshot wounds, and, on a positive note, more frequent equipment modernization.

Meloche lamented the technology gap. 

She said some Ontario hospitals didn’t get computerized charts until the pandemic was underway, forcing nurses to crowd around a piece of paper to read a doctor’s handwriting.

Planning for surges

Another Canadian working in a U.S. hospital said he hopes this crisis inspires policy-makers back home to do long-term planning for big surges.

This won’t be the last pandemic, even if COVID-19 ever ends, said Dr. Rishi Seth, a Winnipeg-born physician working the COVID-19 ward at the Sanford medical centre in Fargo, N.D.

As for his own hospital, he said volumes are manageable and nothing like the nightmarish experience of last winter.

“I think things are going okay,” he said.

Alix Zacharski

Alix Zacharski manages the nurses in the ICU ward at a Miami hospital. She says this Omicron wave isn’t nearly as bad as a Delta wave last year. But she warns: It’s still early. (Jackson Health System)

Then again, North Dakota hasn’t come close to the surge in omicron cases seen on the East Coast, or Florida’s record case levels. 

Yet even there, Miami nurse Alix Zacharski says this wave is nowhere nearly as brutal as last year’s Delta, where she lost patients in their 20s and 30s.

“Last summer it felt like we were under attack,” said Zacharski, who manages the ICU at Jackson Memorial Hospital, recalling long days filled with grief.

This? The hospital can handle it so far — but it’s not over.

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