It is clear that there has been a major shift in focus from acute to chronic care – chronic disease is now on everyone’s mind. I am currently writing this blog entry from the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress, where the first welcoming session began with a long talk by Perry Kendall, Provincial Health Officer of British Columbia. His audience of heart professionals was given a short primer on public health issues. He began by pointing out how much the Lalonde report had changed our understanding of the health field and specifically noted that only a quarter of good health was due to interventions by our current healthcare system. He then covered a range of topics – everything from inequalities in health to obesity. Not a mention was made of infectious diseases, not even Ebola.
The longest part of his talk was about the difficulty in changing the amount of unhealthy food that is being distributed in Canada by a very well-organized food industry. The industry has tried to minimize and even block change in every area from labelling to sodium and sugar content of foods. They declare publicly that they are in favour of these changes, but they work very hard to defer them or stop them entirely. Kendall said that reducing the sugar and fat content of processed food is hard work and would continue to be. For example, the first attempt to introduce voluntary reductions of salt in processed foods at the federal level was rejected out of hand by the Prime Minister’s Office. Efforts to do this at the provincial level will be long and drawn out because of the large number of constituencies. And because compliance is voluntary, there is no certainty when and how the food industry will respond.
He talked quite a bit about the contributors to chronic disease in Canada and could not cover everything. I noticed that on one of his slides there was some material that he did not speak to at all. It is an area where doctors themselves contribute to the ill health of people with chronic diseases, and it seemed like the part they really needed to hear. According to the slide, a significant portion of people with chronic conditions are made worse by overmedication. It was somewhat surprising to me that Kendall did not allude to this problem at all. Here is an area where the heart community could make a difference to public health by developing better practices. Perhaps they were aware of these efforts and there was nothing for Kendall to add.
This became a bit more problematic when I looked through the program. The Platinum sponsors of the congress are AstraZeneca, Bayer, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Pfizer. I went into the exhibition hall and one of the handouts was a “passport” that you could have stapled at all the important stations to win an iPad. The Passport participants were almost all drug companies. In fact, the exhibition hall was filled with exhibits by drug companies and equipment companies. Becel was the only healthy food company with a stand, and there were almost no exhibits devoted to chronic care prevention.
Right now in Canada, we are the second highest users of prescription drugs in the world after the United States. We spend over $900 per person per year on prescription drugs (Lexchin and Gagnon). I think that this is because our healthcare system offers few options to doctors. If you get high blood pressure, an early stage of heart disease, it is easiest to offer medication to control it. If you have high cholesterol, it is similarly easiest to provide statins. And if you have multiple conditions you will have a good chance of being prescribed many different drugs. Often as you get older these many drugs can cause their own problems.
Our healthcare system is not set up to offer the range of supports needed to avert the four main chronic conditions: heart disease, lung disease, cancer and diabetes. But this deficit is becoming more obvious. I hope that the next Cardiac Congress will be more devoted to averting early stages of heart disease in a drug-free manner, by imposing lifestyle changes. It is time for the change to be more thoroughgoing.
Lexchin, Joel and Gagnon, Marc-André. “CETA and Intellectual Property: The debate over pharmaceutical patents.” http://labs.carleton.ca/canadaeurope/wp-content/uploads/sites/9/CETD-Policy-Brief_CETA-and-pharmaceutical-patents_MG_JL.pdf. Oct 2013. 7 pages. Web. 27 Oct 2014.