Wednesday, April 27, 2005

An apparent urban legend about Canada's health care.

All right, we can now speak with some authority on a recent, rather bizarre criticism of Canada's health care system, with the conclusion that the claim we're about to investigate is almost certainly bull... uh, bogus. Yeah, that's it. Bogus.

To recap, back on April 21, one Preston MacDougall, a chemistry professor at Middle Tennessee State University, wrote an op-ed piece for the Tennessean, in which he slammed the quality of Canadian health care, writing in part:

Canadians aren't so lucky when it comes to emergency medical care. A recent mayor of Toronto was forced to wait eight long hours on a stretcher, with a broken leg, before seeing an emergency room physician. And this was in a Toronto hospital! As excruciating as it sounds to us, Canadians are accustomed to it.

This piece was brought to my attention by the troublemakers over at Tennessee Guerilla Women, who wanted to know if there was anything to the story.

Well, on first reading, it's hard not to think that the story is just plain absurd on its face. Even without knowing the identity of the individual, does anyone really believe that a former city mayor (I'm interpreting the adjective "recent" to mean "former") with a broken leg would have simply been abandoned in an emergency room for eight hours before being seen? For you Americans, as an analogy, would Rudy Guiliani have suffered the same ignominy if he'd shown up in emergency in the same shape? Regardless of what you might think of Rudy, the answer is, probably not. So it's hard to believe something similar would happen here. But, not wanting to jump to conclusions, I decided to investigate.

Being the adventurous type that I am, I availed myself of Google and dug around for numerous combinations of the phrases "Toronto", "former mayor", "broken leg", "eight hours" and "emergency", figuring that that item would have been newsworthy enough to have been covered somewhere in the media.


Seriously -- not one hit that appeared to refer to anything even remotely resembling the incident in MacDougall's piece. How odd. In that case, on to Plan B.

Given that MacDougall's e-mail address was displayed at the bottom of the piece, I e-mailed him directly, explaining that I lived near Toronto and that I had never heard anything of the sort and that, more critically, neither had Google and could he be more specific with the details, please?

MacDougall's response, which I reprint here in its entirety, narrows it down slightly but not completely:

The mayor was Mel Lastman, and the incident was early during his term as mayor (of Toronto). I recall the details from an article from a major Toronto daily paper. It was sent to me by a friend. I no longer have the article. Sorry I can't provide more details.

All right, it's not what I was hoping for but at least I had a name. And given that it was allegedly covered in a "major Toronto daily paper", surely that means that Google would know something about it.

Again, nothing.

This was becoming more and more puzzling so I once again e-mailed MacDougall, describing my confusion and suggesting that, given the lack of detail, it was possible that this was just an urban legend, perhaps? MacDougall's response, again in its entirety:

I am well aware of the urban legend phenomenon, and visit often. I have also saved many friends from embarrassment by referring them to this site as well. I hope that I haven't embarrassed MYself, but I recall very well reading the story at a reputable paper's website, discussing it with Canadian relatives, and forwarding the story to others.

Hopefully Mr. Lastman reads your blog, and will provide you with details.

As you can see, that's not really much of an answer. Normally, propagating an urban legend isn't a big deal, unless you do it on the op-ed page of a newspaper as an example of how Canada's health care system sucks. In that case, yeah, you really do kind of have an ethical obligation to have your facts straight. So, once more, back to the e-mail, in which I pointed out once more to MacDougall that, if there's not a shred of supporting evidence from Google, it's hard to believe that this is anything but a fable and that, if he's going to repeat this story, it would be nice if he had the details to back it up. Whereupon, the response:

I was also unable, using Google, to find any reference to my grandfather's death while waiting for a simple by-pass operation. If this also troubles you, I could look into whether or not it would be possible to send a small sample of his cremated remains.

Ah. So now Prof. MacDougall has gone from being a correspondent to just being a dick. Apparently, this is what passes for humour in his universe. Also, apparently, he sees no problem with promoting completely unsubstantiated fairy tales on the op-ed pages of a major online newspaper. That's generally considered pretty tacky behaviour, no matter what country you live in.

So, let's open it up to the readers. Given what details you have, can you track down any supporting evidence for MacDougall's claim? To be fair, of course it's always possible that this happened. But, so far, we have nothing but MacDougall's word for it and, given his rather dismissive nonchalance regarding the need for actual evidence, I'd really like to have more than his sarcastic reassurances. If you catch my drift.

UPDATE: Over here, from February of 1999, we have the tantalizing teaser, "Mel Lastman claimed a visit to an emergency ward "scared the hell" out of him, but it later emerged that he received VIP treatment." I think we're getting close, so who can fill in the blanks?

MORE UPDATE: From another issue from that same site: "[Lastman] understands what good service is, especially when it comes to waiting around in an emergency room in an Ontario hospital." So why the heck is it so hard to track down details on the actual incident? Argh.


Anonymous said...

Well, I haven't any cash to check right now, but a cursory search of the Toronto Star archives (figuring that if ANY paper covered Mel Lastman being stuck in an ER for eight hours, it would be the Star shows the following:

for "Mel Lastman AND emergency room" - 24 articles, most about patient overcrowding or funding cuts, but one from February 10, 1999, refers to "Mel Lastman experiences ER crisis firsthand" - if anything is the article in question, I'm guessing it would be that. (Byline by Paul Moloney and Bruce Demara.) It unfortunately costs $4.25 to get the article online from the Star archives and I'm pretty broke, but there you go.

for "Mel Lastman AND broken leg" - one article. Not the same as above, it's one from April 2000 from the sports section somewhere.

for "Mel Lastman AND stretcher" -
six articles. Again, none of them are the one mentioned above and none appear to be about Mel Lastman on a stretcher.

If I've got time anytime soon I'll drop by the Toronto Research Library, because now my interest is piqued, and check it out for free (as well as checking the Globe And Mail and Toronto Sun from the same period). But, as it stands, it's looking like this is either a vast exaggeration of one article or a myth.

CC said...

Hmmmm ... it would seem that that Star article would be a possibility, but you'd think that an incident like a mayor getting shabby medical treatment would be a bigger story than that.

In addition, in his e-mail, MacDougall described the incident as having happened "early" in Lastman's stint as mayor. What was the time frame of his mayorship? Or mayorness? Or whatever.

At this point, I think it's safe to conclude that the story is bogus unless some compelling new evidence comes forward.

And here's another homework assignment -- what right-wing echo chambers have already picked up on this "story" as proof of the inferiority of Canada's medical system? It's always fun to keep track of the gullibility factor out there.

M@ said...

Lastman was mayor from November (or maybe it was late October) of 1997, until last spring I think.

During this period I was doing a lot of commuting into Toronto and I listened to a lot of Toronto-based talk radio (explanation: FM radio in car broken). I can say almost certainly that Lastman did not suffer a broken leg in that period.

I do vaguely remember some story about Lastman going to the ER, but I wonder whether it was for his wife rather than himself.

egalia said...

I also tried google before I came here. If you guys can find something, I can use it to embarrass/discredit this local right-winger.

He also said that Canadians are unhappy with their healthcare, which is obviously pure fiction; it's not hard to find quite a few polls saying otherwise, and I believe I cited one in a piece I wrote on the subject last year for

Anyway I'll stay tuned, thanks again for pursuing this.

Tennessee Guerilla Women

CC said...

At this point, I think we're safe in concluding that MacDougall's claim is bogus but, in any case, it's perfectly acceptable to suggest that there is no meaningful evidence to support his story, and that it's his responsibility to substantiate his own claims. Then challenge him to do that.