Atif Zafar, MD is a global leader in healthcare, who has led and established various stroke and cerebrovascular programs in North America.
During this year’s National Stroke Awareness month, we have a chance to speak with him to discuss the future of stroke care in the US and Canada.
Dr. Zafar, tell us about the current status of stroke care in the US and Canada?
Thank you for having me. Stroke continues to be a leading cause of disability in the world. We have made some progress, especially in the last 7 to 8 years by adding new procedures focusing on clot removal. This is in addition to the clot-busting medication that can be given within 4.5 hours of stroke onset. That being said, a large number of patients are still not getting these emergent treatments, mainly because stroke patients either do not reach the emergency room in a timely way, or the hospital they reach doesn’t have the right expertise. In that case, patients are transferred to larger hospitals – delaying the emergent care for our patients. Timely and robust access to rehab is also an area where we are hoping to make strides. I say this coz once patients suffer a stroke, other than medical treatment, physical/occupational/speech and cognitive therapy make a remarkable contribution to recovery.
You are one of the few medical experts who has closely observed, personally practiced and experienced the pros and cons of the US and Canadian Healthcare systems. Do you feel there are pros and cons between the two systems? Do you have a verdict?
I have had the privilege to lead clinical programs and teams both in the US and Canada. I strongly believe that the most patient-centric healthcare model is an extract from the US and Canadian Healthcare systems. I have my opinions on this.
From a stroke patient’s standpoint, the Canadian Healthcare system is superior. Period. But as you may know, outpatient and clinic access in a government-paid healthcare system such as that of Canada is very sluggish. So that’s a pinpoint in Canada. In the US, there’s a variation based on what insurance you have, which state you live in, and all those inequity-related issues. Similarly, getting an MRI or other sophisticated testing in Canada is ridiculously slow compared to here in the US.
I guess in simple words, any disabling disease, including stroke can financially ruin one’s life if you are a middle-aged, middle-class person living in the US. In Canada, you have some support sponsored by the government irrespective of your financial status.
What do you see as the future of healthcare in general and stroke care in particular?
Healthcare is one of the few businesses in the US or Canada that, even in this day and age, does not focus on the customers – the patients. The only customer-centric thing devised was malpractice or the ‘act to sue’ your doctors or nurses. I am not sure if there is a better way to explain healthcare better than what I just did. The reason why I am so optimistic about change in healthcare is that there is no other way around it. Fortunately, with technology will come innovation and efficiency. Innovation helps fight bureaucracy. While efficiency, believe me, is desperately needed in healthcare.
The future of stroke and many other illnesses is digital and personalized. What we all will see is a shift towards disease prevention. Blockchain, AI, biotechnology, and genetic databanks, along with robotics is going to gradually change healthcare in the next 6 to 8 years. Exciting times ahead!
Another way of looking at the future is this: We are going to move towards personalized healthcare from the current evidence-based and population-based healthcare and sick-care system. In the era of social media and the prevalence of entitlement that exists in the world, personalized healthcare will be here very soon.
May 2022 is the Stroke Awareness Month. What is your message to the general public today?
Please please don’t go take a nap when suddenly half of your body stops working or you can’t talk normally all of a sudden. Call 911 right away. Every minute we waste will lead to 2 million neurons dying.
A stroke, which can also be called Brain Attack, is when a clot goes up to the brain and stops the blood flow to a part of the brain. This causes sudden onset of speech, language, balance or vision problems, or sudden weakness or numbness in one half of the body. Unless treated right away, this can lead to lifelong disability. Please call 911 and come to the emergency right away when you are having a stroke.
Dr. Zafar, thank you for your time.