New directions for health are possible
New directions for health are possible

“Health is not just about [physical] healthcare – it is about seeing the person, rather than the illness,” said Paul Gallant as we chatted over coffee about his views on the Canadian healthcare system.

And these views come from a man who clearly has an insider’s perspective. Gallant is a multi-skilled healthcare leader, with roles that include Vice-Chair of the Canadian College of Health Leaders, BC Lower mainland Chapter, and the Advisory Board of the Canadian Association for People-Centred Health. He has worked directly with community stakeholders, healthcare executives, physicians, patients, mental health teams, hospice staff, researchers, ER teams, CEOs/VPs, volunteers, Boards, political leaders, CIOs, Deans, Dept. Heads, and other health professionals – all with an eye on how to create a more effective and efficient healthcare system for all.

Since his teenage years in Newfoundland, Gallant has always been the champion of recognizing the person before “the patient” in every situation. His first experience of this was as a lifeguard at a local community pool in Carbonear, Conception Bay. He noticed a small group of people with disabilities that were always ushered in for a swim after regular hours. He became curious about how to help them enjoy their swimming experience more, and got involved in teaching them to improve their skills. Later, at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia while studying recreation therapy, he continued to develop swim programs for people with disabilities – programs that recognized them as people first. His main goal was to overcome their social isolation; and winning swim time for them during the normal hours of operation at the swimming pool was a victory….

Gallant’s determination to see the person in every one he meets, regardless of any label attached to them, has a central message that could change the way we view health and healthcare. We tend to define ourselves and others by health labels: “I am getting old,” “He has this or that disease,” etc. And this leads us to a sense of dependency on others for answers. But what if we changed the parameters? What if we defined ourselves and others, as Gallant did when he worked with those first swimmers, by looking first for the  “healthy person within?” It was in seeing the individual first, that Gallant was able to help many of his swimmers see possibilities they only dreamed of. This view gave them dignity and more responsibility, thus encouraging them to make their own decisions.

Taking this idea a little further, we need to see past the current labels for healthcare to new directions and possibilities. A recent study by the Canadian Medical Association, highlighted the concerns and worries Canadians have about the system and its escalating costs. While many within the system are working hard to provide good quality care, every year the system gets larger, more expensive and less efficient. As Gallant says, “We have a disease care, not a healthcare system.” And the system reflects that view.

Solutions to these problematic trends exist, yet they often require breaking out of the very narrow parameters with which we view both health and the way we care for it. A fresh view of what health is would certainly change the direction of the conversation. I asked Gallant, if he had three wishes for a better healthcare model, what would they be? After quite a pause, he said:

1. “That the public be made far more aware of how healthcare functions, including the actual costs involved in healthcare. For example, it is significantly cheaper to visit with a family doctor, than to go to the Emergency. … We don’t need more MRI machines; we need more ways to help people effectively.”

2. “There should be better access and care for people by the family doctor. Then the need for acute care would be lower. This would be a huge cost saving.”

3.  “We need to get away from the disease care model in the healthcare system. Perhaps our social clubs and fitness centres should be the new concept for ‘health’ care.”

The shifts Gallant is advocating, along with other ideas being discussed, are bold and groundbreaking. But changing the basis of how we view healthcare requires us to move away from seeing ourselves as dependent on others for every aspect of our health, to a more proactive and independent health model.

And, this fundamental change will take some radical – but not necessarily new – thinking. Basing his medical practice on his Christian roots, the Nobel Peace prize winner, and missionary doctor, Albert Schweitzer, said, “Every patient carries his or her own doctor inside.” This seems similar to Jesus’s statement when he said, “The kingdom of God is within you.” Each of us, in our character, has the capacity to reflect the Divine, and this can be a healthy place to start.

As Gallant saw the potential within those swimmers in his early days of thinking about healthcare, so we can see a stronger identity and higher, more independent potential within us, because our health care begins within. It depends on how we see ourselves and others.

This article was first published on Sept 16 2013 in the  Vancouver Sun HERE