Will Smitherman clean up Toronto’s soggy bottom? The man with the incontinence product runs for mayor

The Globe and Mail reported today on the official entry of George Smitherman into the race for mayor of Toronto.

A former health minister and deputy premier, Smitherman is renowned for much more than merely having been Ontario’s first openly gay MPP. Over the years the aggressive politician dubbed “Furious George” left a trail of arched eyebrows and stares of incredulity as he blundered into modest notoriety.

Two years ago, in what will surely be remembered as the nadir of his public career, Smitherman demonstrated appalling, cringe-making insensitivity as he made a bad mess worse in responding to criticism of the treatment of the elderly in the province’s largely private nursing homes. He told the media that he was prepared to don an adult diaper — and use it — to justify his government’s policies. Not surprisingly, this deranged outburst did not sit well with an outraged public.

The criticisms Smitherman’s health ministry received were justified. The Ontario Association of Non-Profit Homes and Services for Seniors claimed that seniors in nursing homes should be getting at least three hours of personal care; it said the average in the province is about 2.5 hours a day. The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), which represents many nursing home workers, called for a standard of 3.5 hours. Many studies have shown that without proper staffing and adequate standards the quality of care plummets. Front-line nursing home staff in Ontario report that residents are sitting in deplorable conditions. Incontinence products are often kept under lock and key, and many homes are directing staff to change residents only when the product is 75% soiled.

On February 27, 2008, two long-term care workers used four bottles of water to fill an adult diaper at a CUPE press conference in Toronto. They wanted to show how much urine had to be in a diaper before care aides were allowed to change it under current legislation. With stunning insensitivity Smitherman said in response that he was ready to test out an adult diaper to show criticism was unfounded. “I’ve got one of these incontinence products — albeit a new one, not the ones that tend to appear at committee — on my desk and I’m really giving this matter very serious contemplation,” Smitherman said. It wasn’t only critics of the Liberal government who were angry. There were loud calls for the minister’s resignation, even within his own caucus.

Wags and cynics sharpened their quills. In March the National Post published an imaginary Smitherman diary entry, with entries like this:

TUESDAY
Major confession, diary. I tried out an incontinence diaper today. It was so … freeing. I had three large coffees … and then I sat through a three-hour meeting with a bunch of bureaucrats. No pee breaks! It was so much more efficient. Made a bit of a stumble at lunch, though, by having the side dish of asparagus. Won’t make that mistake again! I think this will really help in my discussion with the nurses’ union. Five hours seems to be the limit before things get a little soggy. I think I’ll publicly float the idea tomorrow. Right after I shoot up an eight-ball of smack to get a better feel for drug addiction.

Of course, an apology followed immediately. “I wasn’t trivializing the matter,” Smitherman said. “I take it really, really seriously.” The minister could not be reached for comment for a long time after that; but his “diary” entry gives us some insight into why:

FRIDAY
After I came in from my night on the streets yesterday morning, Dalton [Premier Dalton McGuinty] called and ordered me to apologize for the diaper “stunt.” I explained that I only thought it would gain a better understanding of the issue, but he wouldn’t listen. “Also, George,” he said, “please tell me you weren’t wearing one in my office the other day. Because I thought it smelled like asparagus, if you catch my drift.” I told him my cellphone was cutting out and I hung up.

Sam Solomon, writing in his blog Canadian Medicine, addsed that this wasn’t the first time that “Furious George” has run off at the mouth:

Speaking about new building plans suggested by some hospital boards in Ontario, Mr Smitherman dismissively referred to the expensive proposed upgraded facilities as “Taj Ma-hospitals.”Another classic outburst was featured on Stephen Colbert’s American parody politics talk show in 2005. Talking to none other than an assemblage of the Ontario Association of Optometrists, Mr Smitherman called optometrists “a bunch of terrorists, and I don’t negotiate with terrorists.” “Bravo, sir,” Mr Colbert said. “Optometrists are a menace. You have to be careful with a group that gets their kicks blowing air into our eyeballs.”


During the “incontinence product” controversy in 2008 Smitherman’s bizarre antics were dismissed by Sid Ryan, president of CUPE’s Ontario chapter, who said the minister completely missed the point. The problem wasn’t the products, but the cruel reality that residents in long-term care facilities were forced to wear soiled diapers through the night and sometimes up until noon the next day. “If the minister wants to play silly games, well then, let him put on a diaper and sleep in it all night long and come into the legislature and wear it up until 12 o’clock,” Ryan told the Canadian Press.

Could the problems so clumsily dealt with by Ontario’s health minister possibly be related to the fact that in Ontario 60% of all publicly funded long-term care beds are in for-profit institutions, as compared with 15% in Manitoba [1]? There is ample research to show that public investment in not-for-profit, rather than for-profit, delivery of long-term care results in more staffing and improved care outcomes for residents [1,2]. Instead of experimenting with adult diapers, perhaps Mr. Smitherman should have tried absorbing some of those important statistics and the advice of experts. There are a lot of excellent health libraries within throwing distance of the Ontario legislature.

From Eyeweekly.com here is a a taste of what to expect when Smitherman hits the Toronto campaign trail – a few Diaper George gems:

On announcing his candidacy intent: “A native son is coming home to serve.”

On wearing adult diapers to ensure nursing home residents are getting adequate care: “I’ve got one of these incontinence products … on my desk and I’m really giving this matter very serious contemplation.”

On controversial energy audits for homebuyers: “They taught me in some Grade 10 course — which was almost at the end of my stream of education — the notion of caveat emptor, buyer beware.”

On music: “I’ve been working out to the new Whitney Houston. I’m a gay man, so I love Whitney.”

On working with others: “Nobody should associate me with the status quo.”


References:

1. McGrail KM, McGregor MJ, Cohen M, Tate RB, Ronald LA. For-profit versus not-for-profit delivery of long-term care. CMAJ. 2007 Jan 2;176(1):57-8.

2. McGregor MJ, Cohen M, McGrail K, Broemeling AM, Adler RN, Schulzer M, Ronald L, Cvitkovich Y, Beck M. Staffing levels in not-for-profit and for-profit long-term care facilities: does type of ownership matter? CMAJ. 2005 Mar 1;172(5):645-9.


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