About 40 or 50 years ago, Canada’s healthcare system was pretty good. These days it is no longer addressing the needs of Canadians so well. It still provides proper care for people with acute illnesses by way of excellent surgeons, well-trained specialists, and an increasing number of family practice professionals. But by and large, it is not very good at dealing with the four main causes of mortality today – cancer, heart disease, lung disease and diabetes, and the population that is most affected by them, those 65 and over.
One of the great successes of the modern era has been the dramatic increase in life expectancy. People in the developed world lived for an average of 35 to 40 years in 1850 (Reynolds). People born in Canada today can expect to live for more than 80 years (Statistics Canada). This increase is typically common knowledge.
What is less widely known is that the increase in longevity also brought with it an increase in healthy years lived. As late as the 19th century, most people over 40 suffered from one chronic condition or another. Many of these conditions were primarily the result of the infectious disease that they survived as children or young adults. Today, chronic conditions affect most people over the age of 65. So we can describe the improvement from 1850 to now by saying that we have an added 25 years of disease-free life. Of those over 65, 89% have been diagnosed with at least one chronic condition. And in fact, 25% between 65 and 79 years old report having four or more chronic conditions (Public Health Agency of Canada).
The causes of chronic diseases today are different from those of 1850: they tend to occur as a result of lifestyle, environmental or genetic factors, rather than earlier infectious disease. Also, chronic conditions tend to be diagnosed at an earlier stage. When medicare was introduced in Canada in the 1950s and 1960s, chronic conditions often manifested in their acute phase – heart disease as heart attacks, lung disease as cancer and so on, and they were treated in acute care hospitals. Today we diagnose these conditions far earlier. We can identify early stages of the four main chronic killers and we know that early diagnosis is very effective in slowing the progress of these conditions and even reversing them.
Unfortunately our system is not well-structured to keep people with early stages of chronic disease healthy. We do not provide the health education, systematic support for changes in eating habits, and exercise and lifestyle recommendations that would avert the slow development of these chronic conditions. The result has been a tremendous boon for drug companies. Because we have inadequate support in the community for helping people to deal with pre-diabetic conditions, high cholesterol counts, increased blood pressure or reduced lung capacity, our primary care system relies almost entirely on referrals to specialists and to medication.
The result has been that we have an overmedicated population that spends more than $900 per capita on prescription drugs (Lexchin and Gagnon). Another survey found that 76% of people over the age of 65 had taken a prescribed medication in the last two days (Ramage-Morin). We are second only to the United States in our consumption of prescription drugs.
In my next blog entry, I will describe services that are part of the National Health Service in England that have enabled the UK to keep people with chronic conditions healthier, avert institutional care for a longer time and have significantly less drug consumption.
Canada. Government of Canada. Statistics Canada. Life expectancy, at birth and at age 65, by sex and by province and territory. Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2009. Web. 3 No v 2014.
Canada. Public Health Agency of Canada. The Chief Public Health Officer’s Report on the State of Health in Canada 2010. [Ottawa]: Public Health Agency of Canada, 2010. Public Health Agency of Canada. Web. 3 Nov 2014.
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.
Ramage-Morin, Pamela. “Medication use among Senior Canadians.” Component of Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 82-003-XPE . Health Reports 20.1 (2009). Web. 3 Nov 2014.
Reynolds, Neil. “Good news: life’s no longer short.” The Globe and Mail 19 Feb 2010. Web. 3 Nov 2014.