By Jeremy Warren
July 4, 2012
Fifty years ago this week the Saskatoon Community Clinic welcomed its first patients as hundreds of doctors across Saskatchewan went on strike to protest the province's new medicare plan.
A small group of doctors and citizens established the member-owned clinic in 1962 and started seeing patients on July 3 of that year. On Tuesday, the clinic hosted a 50th anniversary event to commemorate the opening and the people and places that played a role in its creation.
Bonnie Lawrence's parents were among the clinic's first supporters and patients, but she was too young at the time to understand the emotional debates going on around her. On Tuesday, she joined a walking tour organized by the clinic to visit the historical sites connected to those early battles.
"My parents were supporters of the idea of medicare from the beginning," Lawrence said at the event in the Delta Bessborough Hotel. "They grew up without it and realized there was a great deal of hardship they and their friends endured in the 1930s and 1940s that could be avoided."
The Saskatoon Community Health Services Association launched the clinic in the Avenue Building with two doctors, and has since moved to two locations in the downtown and on 20th Street West. The non-profit, which receives most of its funding from the provincial government, has close to 10,000 members in Saskatoon and surrounding area.
Fifty years on and the clinic's core mission has not changed, said executive director Tim Archer.
"What hasn't changed is the fact that this is delivery of care through a team," Archer said. "Our team is bigger now, but putting the patient at the centre of care has always remained."
The patient-owned clinic is unique in that its members direct care and the types of services offered by physicians, Archer said. At a recent annual general meeting, for example, members passed a resolution requiring the clinic to investigate the possibility of introducing house calls as part of its service.
The clinic employs doctors, nurses, mental health counsellors, nutritionists, occupational therapists, pharmacists and diagnostic technicians so the range of services offered covers most aspects of a patient's life, Archer said.
"We're trying to fill in the cracks where they exist in the system," he said.
An important expansion came with the opening of the Westside Clinic on 20th Street West, which helps serve a marginalized population often lost in the health care system, Archer said.
"We're serving some of the most complex patients in the province," he said.
Medical professionals are paying more attention to social determinants of health, which look at the role a patient's background - such as income, education and living situation - to determine care, said Dr. Ryan Meili, a Westside Clinic physician and author of A Healthy Society: How a Focus on Health Can Revive Canadian Democracy.
More medical graduates are looking at community clinics as preferred places to work, Meili said.
"Education is probably a step or two ahead of practice," he said at the event. "It's education that explains social responsibility. They are interested in providing the best care and (the community clinic) model can probably do the best job."
Dr. John Bury started practicing in the clinic in 1963 after arriving from England, where he heard about the community clinic and the medicare battle in Saskatchewan. He came to Saskatoon "caught in the slipstream of the strike," he said.
"It was a unique thing in its time, being owned by the patients," Bury said before the event, adding that the new health care model divided the medical community.
"People forget what a painful experience it was during that time, and Canada has never thanked us for that. Although we were very much appreciated by the patients we had."
The 1962 doctors' strike, formed by physicians opposed to the government's medicare plan, led to strained relationships and strong emotions, which are still felt today. The community clinic started taking patients two days after the 23-day strike began.
"It was a shameful thing what the doctors did," Bury said.
"You should never refuse care for a patient when they need it."