By Andru McCracken, EDITOR
Our recent inquiries into the prevalence of suicide in our community – and what’s being done about it – aren’t being answered in a timely way by the Northern Health Authority, and although I really want to cry foul, I try not to look for a bad guy, because I know it’s complex. In a nutshell, our communities are so small that our health authority necessarily keeps some information from us, because sharing it would compromise people’s privacy.
On a provincial level, the coroner can make a big list of what people died from, for example, and the province is so big that, if she excludes names, she won’t reveal any private information of individuals.
In Valemount, on the other hand, if she published a list of what people died from, you could reasonably figure out what everyone in town died from if you had some clues and insights to bring – even if the list was anonymous.
If you reveal too much data and the dataset is small and in a narrow timeline, you might give away information that someone wouldn’t likely choose to give away.
Privacy is a value I cherish. I don’t want my banker broadcasting how much money I have, I don’t want the liquor store sharing what I drink, and I certainly don’t want doctors broadcasting anything about my health. So I understand why the Province of British Columbia requires Northern Health to obey the Freedom Of Information And Protection Of Privacy Act. It suits me just fine, until I try to hold that organization accountable as a journalist.
When my wife gave birth to our child we learned about the extraordinary rate of Cesarean sections in the community through our peers. The rates were far above the provincial average. Experts believe there is a connection between the Cesarean rate and how far women have to go to get prenatal care.
It took a lot of angling and ultimately a Freedom of Information request to get even very general data. But it showed that the Cesarean rate was unusually high.
What’s probably most interesting here is that the data was not being kept at a local level.
It is hard to track because here, women can easily choose to deliver their babies in three separate health authorities spanning two provinces. When that data isn’t being tracked, how is it possible that we can keep the Northern Health Authority accountable for their decisions to reduce maternal care in the valley, like their 2019 decision to stop providing prenatal classes?
My concern is that the health care experience of people in Valemount and McBride are being averaged into all of Northern BC. The reality is our communities are very different from the 80,000 people living in Prince George, and while it might parallel the other 140,000 people who live in the Northern Health’s jurisdiction it is in many ways unique.
While local physicians, nurses and support staff are excellent and will provide us with an extraordinarily high standard of care, it is shocking that some really important health statistics like the Cesarean rate weren’t being tracked… I’m still not sure whether a local suicide rate is being kept.
Centralization plays a role here. In the olden days, the province had many small health units including one just for the Robson Valley that did the work of administering health care. I won’t make the case that was always better, but I will point out, a local health unit could very well do a better job of keeping tabs on trends. Health officials would likely compare their Cesarean rates and a local coroner would likely note the suicide rate compared to other jurisdictions.
Northern Health is highly centralized and they are required by law to take privacy very seriously, but both come at a cost, a cost that could jeopardize their core mission “to provide exceptional health services for Northerners.”
Our health authority is, in my experience as a patient and a father, an awesome institution, but even good institutions need to be able to be held to account. My fear is that a singular focus on privacy and the centralization of administration has made that impossible.