Op-Ed: Is our health care system up to the challenge of an aging population?

By Dr. Anna Reid

President, Canadian Medical Association

Governments are loath to be far ahead of the public. They need not worry about that when it comes to the need for a national strategy on seniors health care. Here is an example of the public being far ahead of government.

Recently, the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) commissioned a poll of 1,000 Canadians aged 18 and over for our annual National Report Card on our health care system. They sent some clear, common-sense messages. Politicians take heed.

Nine out of 10 Canadians polled by Ipsos Reid on the CMA’s behalf said Canada needs a national strategy for seniors health care at home, hospitals, hospices and long-term facilities. But most importantly, an equal number said a comprehensive strategy for seniors health care would improve the entire system by keeping elderly Canadians at home as long possible and thereby lightening the load on hospitals and long-term facilities.

An outbreak of common sense like this should not be dismissed by policy-makers. It also bears repeating: If we make it easier for older Canadians to stay at home longer, we will improve the health care system, not further burden it.

In the event elderly Canadians cannot stay at home, there must be such alternatives to hospital care as long-term facilities. A national strategy for seniors health care would address this imbalance.

In 2007-2008, 1.7 million hospital bed days were used by patients who should have been in long-term care but couldn’t be because of a shortage of facilities in their areas.

An imbalance like this is a prime reason the CMA advocates patient-centred health care, as it makes more strategic sense to plan for what’s best for Canadians, not what’s best for hospitals.

But let’s do some simple math. It costs $842 a day to fill a hospital bed versus $126 a day for a long-term bed. On the basis of the misuse of hospital beds I just cited, there would be an annual saving of $1.4 billion.

Ordinary Canadians told us something else that’s important. Nine out of 10 respondents believe all three levels of government – federal, provincial/territorial and municipal – need to get going now on a national strategy for seniors health care.

The CMA believes our health care system requires nothing short of a transformation, a transformation that puts patients first and ensures that they can get the right care, at the right time, in the right place. Accomplishing that requires the federal government to lead the way in addressing the demographic tsunami that won’t wait for politicians to do a triage of their agendas. It is gratifying Canada’s premiers have put seniors at the top of their health care innovation agenda. But this is one issue with which governments of all levels need to catch up to their constituents – fast.