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Gillian Woodford – Editor, National Review of Medicine

By Admin | April 6, 2008

Gillian Woodford is the Editor of the National Review of Medicine, a print and electronic publication devoted to the Canadian healthcare system. She also publishes the widely read medical blog Canadian Medicine. She gives us her thoughts on publishing and the pros and cons of the Canadian Health System.

Where did you go to college and what was your academic major?

I did English lit. I did my undergrad at the University of New Brunswick – the New Brunswick in Canada, not New Jersey – and my MA at Concordia University here in Montreal.

What was your career path from college to your current position?

I was living in Bristol, England and got a job running the editorial office of the geriatrics journal Age and Ageing. It was a great experience. When I came back to Montreal in 2003, NRM was about to launch and I was hired as features editor.

What properties do you publish?

We started out as a print-only newspaper for Canadian doctors. Gradually all our content was made available on our website (www.nationalreviewofmedicine.com).

About a year ago we launched our blog, Canadian Medicine (www.nationalreviewofmedicine.com/blog) as a way to put up-to-the-minute medical and health politics stories on the web for our readers in between issues.

We’re also conscious that doctors deserve good quality medical reporting – well-written, accurate, speaking to their point of view.

There’s a lot of amazing health writing out there but also a lot of drivel. We try our best to be in the first category with good prose, humour and analysis.

What has been your biggest news scoop?

This one’s a little obscure for US readers, but NRM did a series on a family medicine College certification exam that doctors felt was discriminating against older docs. It came via a tip from a doctor.

The stories we covered – written by a former editor here, Julia Cyboran – stirred up a lot of reaction from older Canadian doctors who felt they were being done dirty by the College and the system in general.

But we also got a few defences from younger docs who aced the exam. We really struck a chord.

Who is your dream interview?

I had the opportunity to interview Dr Henry Morgentaler last fall. For me that was a dream interview.

Dr Morgentaler more or less single-handedly got abortion decriminalized in Canada in 1988. I was in high school at the time and just becoming aware of a lot of inequalities in Canadian society so it was pretty seminal for me.

He’s an amazing man – a Holocaust survivor who went to jail several times because he thought it was wrong that women were being prevented from getting safe, legal abortions.

He’s in his 80s now and he’s still out there suing the provincial governments over abortion access.

How have you built your readership for your publications?

By talking to a lot of doctors we stay on top of what their concerns are and reflect that in the paper.

That’s really crucial – depending on just press releases for story ideas and information -which is what some medical publications do – leads to dull and biased medical journalism and it doesn’t reflect what’s going on in doctors’ practices and lives.

Since we launched in 2004 we’ve evolved the paper a lot, responding to feedback from our readers and adapting to trends like higher web use.

How do you come up with ideas for interviews and stories?

Besides talking to doctors, we read. A lot. And then we read some more. We read medical journals, newspapers, magazines, websites, online forums, medical organization newsletters, hospital notices, blogs — whatever we can get our hands on.

The key to deciding what’s important to cover, whether it’s a new drug that’s been released or a certain aspect of a new government budget, is to get a good grasp on the context of the story.

The question is always really the same one that all journalists ask themselves about every article they write – does this matter to my readers?

Are your publications profit or nonprofit?

We’re hoping to retire on the Google ads on our blog.

Why do you think some Canadians travel to the US for healthcare?

My impression is there aren’t that many doing this, but those who do do so mostly because of long wait times for certain procedures or treatments.

There are a bunch of cases ongoing where patients have gone to the States for a diagnostic test or a treatment and then come back and sue their provincial government to reimburse them.

Or they threaten to do so and the government relents. There was just one case here in Quebec of a woman with a really rare form of cancer, signet-ring-cell carcinoma.

After the government twice refused to pay for her to seek treatment in the US, they finally agreed to pay for the treatment – it’s not available in Canada.

There was also a high-profile case last fall when an Alberta woman had to go to Montana to have her quadruplets because all the closest NICUs were full.

The government is trying to fix the wait time problem by establishing guarantees (and throwing money at the problem), but things have actually gotten worse.

Most doctors think we need to reform the system, including using more private/public partnerships for elective procedures.

Unfortunately, we still have a doctor shortage so we don’t have the people to man more private clinics without bleeding the public system.

What aspects of the Canadian healthcare system most need to be fixed?

As I mentioned above, the doctor shortage, which will have a knock-on effect on wait times. The situation is desperate at the moment here because back in the 90s it was decided we had too many and the provinces cut med school places.

I just wrote an article about doctors who are winding down their practices and the doctors I spoke to are just demoralized.

They are so overworked, they feel undervalued by the system, they worry about providing good care to their patients and maintaining their own health and sanity. It’s pretty grim out there.

What are the best features of the Canadian healthcare system?

The universality of the system is something we’re really proud of here – especially when we hear horror stories from the US about people mortgaging their homes to pay their hospital bills.

Canada’s system is far from perfect, but pretty much everyone – doctors and patients included – think that what you in the States call “socialized medicine” is a good thing. Nobody questions the degree of universality, but we’re starting to question the single-payer model.

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