With Ontario’s 43rd general election now behind us, there are still many uncertainties remaining, including who will be the new Ontario Health Minister overseeing the single largest budget line in the province’s books.

And, whoever that new Minister is, they will have significant challenges to try and tackle while also learning the ropes of their new job. To help shine a light on the challenges facing our new Health Minister, and to talk about the politics of health care in Ontario, H+K convened an expert panel on May 24th, moderated by our own Will Stewart and featuring health reporter Carly Weeks from the Globe and Mail as well H+K’s Jeff Ferrier and myself, Laura Greer. We’re pleased to now share the four key takeaways here.

1. Big challenges require bold solutions, but who will propose them?

Canadians often define themselves in opposition to being American with a particular focus on how our health care systems differ, but when we do, we often fail to acknowledge a truth the pandemic laid bare — our publicly funded health system has become dysfunctional. Governments of all stripes have tried to address this by building more hospitals, hiring more staff, or both but in so doing, our panelists agreed, they have missed the forest for the trees.

What our health system needs is big, bold ideas that fundamentally shift our health care model to a focus on patients first and away from institutional care and health care providers. And yet, with none of the major parties proposing these types of solutions, how will our health care system be any different when the next global pandemic rolls around? Will the overreliance on polling and focus groups to define policy maintain the status quo or could a party or leader break new ground with transformative ideas that shift the discussion?

2. Everyone agrees, health care is important, so why isn’t it at the top of the agenda?

First, health care isn’t polarizing, no one is against patients or seniors getting the care they need so there is no wedge for parties to differentiate themselves on. Second, there is a lack of understanding that leaves voters asking federal parties to address healthcare challenges that are provincial jurisdiction then forgetting about them during provincial elections. Finally, there is the split of the electorate into two voting blocks, change vs. status quo. In this election the appetite for further change in the health care system is sure to have been reduced as so many have spent the last two years undergoing frequent change throughout the pandemic.

3. Public vs. private, a crucial debate or a tired trope?

Canadians are justifiably proud of our publicly funded health care system and want to protect against it becoming an American style private system. Too often however, the public vs. private debate becomes an oversimplification that imagines Ontarians pulling out their credit card for every health service they need. Given the large amount of health care in Ontario that is already delivered privately, including visits to your family doctor or picking up your prescription, it is clear that we already have a hybrid system and what is truly important is the question of how we improve it. To do so we need to move beyond this public vs. private debate to focus on ensuring that all patients can access the care they need, when they need it, to work with all governments and stakeholders to reduce health equity challenges, and to address the serious challenges in our health ecosystem including the opioid crisis, the issues in our long-term care homes, and the endemic staffing shortages across the system.

4. Change is needed, how do we make it happen?

One of the most crucial lessons from the pandemic is the importance of messaging when it comes to the politics of health. Take anti-vaxxers as an example. In the COVID-19 world their messaging has been clear, concise, and consistent as opposed to our public health leaders who have too often lacked specifics, been long-winded, and changed their message daily. As a result, we’ve seen the number of Ontarians opposed to, or skeptical of, vaccines skyrocket simultaneously with a decline in trust of public health officials.

This lesson can be applied to any advocacy goal, if you can clearly, simply, and concisely communicate the impacts of the change you are seeking, you can drive public opinion and force the government’s hand to address your concerns. To take it a step further, you can cultivate and develop relationships with policy makers, politicians, and journalists to help educate them on why your proposed change is not just important, but necessary.