Canadian health care needs a massive transformation
TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Wed Mar 14 2012. John Millar
We’ve heard it from many quarters now: the fiscal sustainability of Canada’s health-care system is under threat as health expenditures are increasing faster than government revenues.
Rising health-care budgets are largely attributable to increased utilization of medical technologies, drugs and health human resources, as recent studies attest. (Population increase and aging also have some effect, but it’s smaller.) Also driving costs is an increasing burden of chronic disease, which includes conditions such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, stroke, cancer, mental health conditions, muscle and joint disease, and others.
The solution lies in nothing less than a transformation of our primary health-care system in Canada. We need to provide comprehensive, integrated, community-based services that will improve population health, reduce inequities, reduce health-care expenditures and contribute to the sustainability of our publicly funded health system.
One essential step toward this transformation would be a coordinated pan-Canadian effort to develop indicators and databases that will support accountability in health care and drive the required changes.
The truth is we already know how to reduce the burden of chronic disease.
Chronic diseases are to a large extent caused by the conditions under which we grow, live, learn, play, work and engage with each other and our communities. These include our food, physical activity, use of alcohol, drugs and tobacco, employment and working conditions, income, early development, education, housing and the environment.
While many of these factors lie within social, political and economic realms outside the health-care system, there is still much the health system can do to prevent and manage chronic disease and reduce its impact on the health of the population and health-care expenditures.
Move away from the old “business” model of health care:
The health-care system was designed long ago to attend to a high prevalence of acute, infectious disease rather than our current pattern where chronic conditions prevail.
The old business model provides poor service for people today with chronic conditions, particularly when there are several coexisting illnesses. As a result, the current primary care system is characterized by poor access and prolonged waits for patients, a lack of attachment to a provider, time-limited consultations and repeated, unnecessary clinic visits. It has become inefficient and wasteful of resources and hence is contributing to public and professional dissatisfaction and rising health expenditures.
There are a few fundamental changes that could significantly improve quality of care and reduce health-care costs.
Primary health-care organizations should serve a geographically defined population and provide comprehensive services that include health promotion, health protection, prevention and clinical care through integrated interprofessional teams.
These teams should include public health professionals, community care and social agencies as well as family physicians, nurses, nurse practitioners, pharmacists and many others. This may be best achieved through development of facilitated networks, and with aligned financial incentives that may include a blended payment model.
Electronic data systems, such as electronic health records and population data systems and quality improvement programs could also improve health efficiencies.
Finally, we need a governance structure that allows the people being served to have a voice in health quality improvements, and for providers to be accountable to those being served. It should also promote a culture that is focused on positive relationships between and among providers, patients and the community.
Time to develop common metrics:
But how can such a massive transformation be achieved?
The Harper government has announced that for the 2014 Health Accord, the Canada Health Transfer will continue (~ $30 billion per year) with an “escalator” of 6 per cent until 2017 (somewhat reduced after that). However, like the health agreements of governments past, there has been no mention of direct measures for accountability by the provinces to the federal government.
With no accountability in place, how can we be sure our opportunity for health system transformation won’t be missed?
The Harper government, through Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, has offered a possible solution: the development of “common metrics.”
Such indicators, when supported by appropriate data, would enable tracking progress on the fundamental changes needed to transform our health system, and allow jurisdictions to make comparisons of system change related to service, and outcomes related to improved health and reduced inequities.
“What gets measured gets done,” in other words. But this will require resources and cooperation among the provinces.
Developing “metrics” may not sound sexy but it could be what improves accountability, performance and sustainability in Canada’s publicly funded health-care system.
John Millar is an expert adviser to EvidenceNetwork.ca, a non-partisan online resource designed to help journalists covering health policy issues in Canada. He is also clinical professor, School of Population and Public Health, University of British Columbia.