Insights (Essays)

Insights (Essays) March 2014
Social policies better at creating conditions for good health

Healthcare for healthy lifestyles-only a prescription to disaster

Ryan Meili

SASKATOON, SK/ Troy Media/ - In a recent media article Nova Scotia's Health Minister, Leo Glavine, floated the idea that people should have to demonstrate healthy lifestyles before accessing our healthcare system, much like a bank assesses a customer for a loan.

Sadly, this is not a new idea but has been floated by others pundits and politicos over the years, often couched in the language of practicality and common sense. Healthcare is a privilege to be earned, not a right, they lobby.

Healthcare just for the healthy, in other words. Here's why such an idea would fail - for all of us.

Not only would restricted healthcare access be unkind, it would be unwise, as this kind of barrier would result in people presenting later and sicker to hospital, incurring higher system costs - costs that would inevitably be borne by Canadian taxpayers.

We are relieved that Glavine quickly recognized that a system based on the kind of pre-approval requested for bank loans would be inhumane. But why float the idea in the first place?

Our public healthcare system is there to help address inequality in our society by providing equal access to care for all - not to shame the sick. Our entire population's health declines as inequity increases - even in a wealthy country like Canada.

Of course, it would be better for all people in Canada to eat healthy food, stop smoking and exercise more. as a doctor, I absolutely recommend those actions. However, it's often easier said than done. I also see first-hand exactly why it's difficult for many of my patients to make healthy choices.

It's difficult for some patients to afford the pharmaceuticals that keep their diabetes under control when they are already forced to choose between rent or putting food on the table.

It's difficult for some patients to buy nutritious foods - or it's hard to find the time to cook when they're working multiple part-time jobs. It's hard to give up smoking when everyone in your family smokes and you've been addicted since you were 14 years old.

We don't need the health police, and we don't need a health bank. We don't need "get tough" messages about personal responsibility if we're not going to support better personal choices.

What does the evidence say?

We know, for example, that anti-smoking programs had no effect when we wagged our fingers at smokers - but they had great effect when we used integrated strategies in public education, primary care and public health.

What we need is a healthcare system that's based on need, not ability to pay. But we also need social policies that create the conditions for good health.

The evidence also shows us that lifestyle choices such as decreasing smoking, exercise and good diet increase proportionally to an individual's social and economic status. In other words, improving lifestyles is more about improving inequality within a society, and less about criticizing people for poor choices.

There's no point in singling out those individuals who are "dependent" on our healthcare system. In truth, we are all dependent on our healthcare system to take care of us when we are ill or injured. And it's a value we share in Canada, to take care of each other through our healthcare system.

In fact, our healthcare system is an important tool we have to combat inequality in our society, by providing equal access to care for all.

Medicare lets people get their health back without the added burden of financial ruin, preventing a spiral into poorer health and poverty - which affects society as a whole.

We need to think beyond simplistic prevention messages and reactive healthcare. We need to include serious efforts to reduce poverty, provide affordable, quality housing, and work to overcome systemic marginalization and discrimination.

It's a basic principle of health: if you treat the symptoms and not the underlying condition, your patient won't get better.

It's time to stop pointing the finger at individuals, and look instead toward policies that recognize the evidence and create the conditions for Canadians to make healthier choices.

About the Author(s)

Dr. Ryan Meiliis an expert advisor with EvidenceNetwork.ca, a medical doctor, and the author of A Healthy Society.

Acknowledgment

Troy Media Marketplace © 2014 - All Rights Reserved

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