Unhealthy silence on health issues

TheStar.com – Federal Election – Unhealthy silence on health issues
October 08, 2008. Carol Goar

If you’ve been following the election campaign closely, you’ve heard about Canada’s doctor shortage. You’ve heard about wait times for surgery. You’ve heard about high drug costs. You’ve heard about electronic health records. You’ve heard about private medical clinics.

But you haven’t heard much about health.

It doesn’t come in a medicine bottle. It isn’t delivered by doctors.

The most important determinant of your health is your standard of living. If you’re poor, you’ll probably get sick more often and die sooner than someone who eats properly, lives in a decent house and has a good job.

The second critical factor is your education. If you quit school without the skills you need to survive in the knowledge economy, your odds of enjoying a long, healthy retirement are slim.

Then there’s the environment. If the food you eat, the water you drink and the air you breathe are loaded with pollutants, all modern medicine can do is repair the damage.

Politicians seldom talk about these issues. It’s easier to treat illness and trauma than keep people out of hospitals. It is safer to focus on doctors and drugs than housing and literacy.

But voters bear some responsibility, too. Although they cite health-care as their second highest election priority (after the economy), few think of hunger or illiteracy as health challenges.

That is beginning to change, thanks to the growing body of evidence linking poverty and morbidity; the influence of a new generation of health-care workers trained to see the whole picture; and the tireless efforts of nurses and public health officers.

But you wouldn’t know it from Campaign 2008.

• The Conservative platform released yesterday contains three pages on “ensuring health and environmental well-being” but there are few specifics.

One Stephen Harper’s first acts as prime minister was to abolish the Ministry of State for Public Health, set up five years ago to deal with the rising incidence – and burgeoning cost – of preventable diseases.

• The Liberals devote eight paragraphs of their 69-page platform – and no financial resources – to “health promotion.”

They pledge to “keep Canadians well, not just patch them up.” But most of their plans consist of surveys, new clinical guidelines and more public information.

In fairness, they do have a $20 billion poverty-reduction strategy and a $1.7 billion environmental plan, which includes several measures to make the food supply safer.

But Stéphane Dion, who promises a richer, fairer, greener Canada has never talked about a healthier Canada.

• The New Democrats likewise devote eight paragraphs of their platform to promoting good health. They would spend $50 million a year.

They propose spending 1 per cent of federal health spending on fitness and amateur sport; building more community centres and recreational facilities; banning trans fats and limit children’s exposure to ads promoting junk food.

Like the Liberals, they have a comprehensive anti-poverty program and an environmental plan that includes food safety.

But Jack Layton’s main message to voters is that he would bring 28,000 doctors and nurses and medical professionals onstream.

• The Green party comes closest to making disease prevention a centrepiece of its health policy.

It envisions a health-care system that addresses people’s physical, mental and social well-being. It would spend 1.5 cents out of every federal health-care dollar to keep people well. It would restructure medical training, curb the over-prescription of drugs and offer tax breaks to employers with healthy workplaces. It would give seniors, psychiatric survivors and people with addictions the support they need to stay out of institutions. It would launch an aggressive program to get products known to pose a risk of cancer, infertility and auto-immune diseases off the market.

But most voters aren’t aware Elizabeth May even has a health plan.

The superficial discussion of medical issues in this campaign is troubling. But the bigger worry is what’s missing from the health-care debate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *