Canadian health care a ‘ticking time bomb’

Ramisha Farooq
A poll commissioned by Yahoo Canada News found that 75 per cent of Canadians rank ‘improving’ health care as their top priority for the federal government. Photo from CP

If you ask a Canadian what they care most about the country, chances are you’ll get a different set of values depending on where you are and who you’re talking to — except when it comes to health care.

According to results of a recent Yahoo Canada-Ipsos poll, 75 per cent of Canadians would rank improving health care as the No. 1 or 2 item that the federal government should prioritize. That puts it ahead of a balanced budget, climate change and defence spending in the minds of many.

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But is this ranking a result of pride in a system that Tommy Douglas envisioned would provide vital care for all when he pushed for universal health care in the early 1960s? One that world leaders point to as a model for success in their countries. Or does it reflect concern that Canada’s health care system is buckling under the pressure of an aging population or is struggling to keep up with rapid changes in medicine and technology?

Trish Hennessey, the director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in Ontario, has conducted a number of focus groups on the issue of health care. She says the poll results illustrate how universal health is emblematic of Canadian values.

“It’s rare when 75 per cent of Canadians really agree strongly about something, so it tells you how much they want their government to do better on the health care file,” she says.

However, Brett Skinner, the CEO of the Canadian Health Policy Institute, sees the results differently.

“It could suggest that people are increasingly worried about the future of health care,” he says, pointing to a desire among Canadians for better long term options. “If people were really happy with Canada’s health care system it is doubtful so many would rank it as a high priority for improvement relative to other pressing issues.”

Senior strategy

Across the country, poll results show improving health care was a bigger priority for those 55 years and older at 82 per cent compared to the 65 per cent for Canadians 18 to 34 years old.

Experts agreed that a strategy targeting seniors’ health is necessary to avoid overloading the health care system.

According to the most recent census results, a record 5,780,900 are at least 65 years old, outnumbering children aged 0 to 14 years for the first time ever.

“You twin that with governments at the provincial and federal level not putting in the kind of investments to meet that demand and prepare for the future, it’s a recipe for disaster,” Hennessey says. “It’s a ticking time bomb.”

Baby boomers moving out of the workforce are living longer and healthier lives, Hennessey adds, are putting increased pressure on the health care system to take care of them.

“I think everybody would agree that we need to invest in the system to be able to ensure that every senior gets access to the best care and that we have preventative health care measures in pace as well.”

According to a report from the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) from August 2015, although seniors only account for about 15 per cent of the population (now 16 per cent) they consume approximately 45 per cent of the public health spending.

CMA projects that without a long-term health care strategy aimed at Canada’s aging population, the proportion of spending on health care will grow to almost 62 per cent of health budgets by 2036.

Long-term vision for Canadian health care

A broad-based and comprehensive expansion of family care practices, Lewis says, could be a way to offset many problems plaguing the health system, including overcrowding and long wait times for specialists.

In order to cut down on wait times and stress on the system caused by the overbooking and overuse of appointments, Lewis says the practice of medicine has to change.

“We haven’t capitalized on ways to preventing the face to face visit,” said Lewis. “You need to pay people to adapt to more effective and efficient ways of serving the population.

Broader pharmacare coverage may also offset current access issues.

A national pharmacare program, the last plan in Tommy Douglas’s vision for universal health care, Hennessey says, is also the future of Canadian health care.

“I would really hope that Canadians together would decide that universal pharmacare for everyone in Canada would be a top priority,” Hennessey says. “I really think that with the aging of the baby boomers we’re going to be looking at the end stages of life in a very different way.

By Canada’s 200th birthday, however, Hennessey believes these challenges to Canada’s universal health care system will exist only in history books.

“I would like to see the end of crowded emergency rooms, people waiting in beds in hallways. So I think we’re going to be looking more at palliative care how people can stay in their homes and be supported,” she says.  “I think we’re going to see a revolution.”