Better lifestyle choices will fix our healthcare system

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Canada’s medical system is one of the defining advantages of living in this country, but we have learned from the pandemic that our health insurance is nowhere near as strong and resilient as we would like.

Waiting lists have long been an indicator that the capacity of our clinics and hospitals was insufficient to meet our needs. Then the tidal wave of COVID-19 threatened the continued functionality of all our health services.

The need to protect our hospitals from overload, rather than the need to protect Canadians from disease, has been invoked to justify the lockdowns and other limitations we have endured for nearly two years.

We need a healthier health care system, but pouring a lot more money into existing structures is not an option. Health care is very expensive. Governments are already heavily in debt. Canadians are proud of not paying out of pocket for health care, but are unwilling to pay much more in taxes for the service.

There is an alternative: instead of providing and paying for ever more health care – which is really health care – why not try to prevent disease?

The pandemic has taught us that relatively few of those who are initially healthy are likely to be severely affected by COVID. However, those with pre-existing conditions are fair game for the virus and they become heavy consumers of medical resources.

Obesity increases the likelihood not only of COVID, but also of diabetes, heart attacks and other illnesses. It’s endemic. Almost half of the population of the United States is obese. In Canada, it’s closer to a quarter of the adult population.

We know what to do to prevent or reduce obesity. And prevention would dramatically improve health in Canada and reduce the need for doctors and hospitals. We need to dedicate resources to encouraging people to make the changes they would benefit from.

You might think that we can’t get people to change their behavior even when their health is at stake. But society has encouraged and implemented such behavioral changes in the past.

Watch the Mad Men TV show, set in the 1960s, or just about any movie set in the 60s or earlier. The characters usually had a cigarette in their hand. Young and old smoked to be glamorous and cool.

Smoking tobacco has changed from a status symbol to an indication that the smoker is endangering their health and is likely addicted. Smoking is prohibited in most public places and children warn their parents of the risks.

The use of seat belts in cars is automatic and self-evident. Thousands of people have avoided hospitalization and even death by wearing a seatbelt.

But some readers will remember the days when cars didn’t have seat belts and the resistance to using them when first used. Drivers viewed seat-belt laws as an insult to their ability to drive and a violation of their freedom. No one expected an accident. Why do we need seat belts?

We now know the answer to this question.

A third change in societal behavior that has significantly improved our health and safety is to stop accepting drunk driving. This was not always the case. Otherwise, how would you get home after a party if you weren’t driving? And it really was a party if you weren’t drinking?

Now we’re drinking less alcohol (another positive health change), designated drivers and other alternatives are the norm, and we’re doing things like taking car keys from those who are too weak to recognize this which is not socially acceptable.

Increased seat belt use, reduced smoking and crackdowns on impaired driving are positive societal changes that have improved our lives and eased the strain on our medical resources. The public efforts that led to these changes can be copied to make the kind of changes needed to prevent other illnesses and accidents.

With strong societal support, people who have learned to wear their seat belts, quit smoking, and not drink or drive drunk can be encouraged to eat a few more vegetables and be a little more active.

The overall health of Canadians will improve and we won’t have to worry so much about overwhelming our health care system.

Troy Media columnist Roslyn Kunin is a consulting economist and lecturer. For interview requests, click here.


The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are their own and do not inherently or expressly reflect the opinions of our publication.

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Troy Media is an editorial content provider for news outlets and its own hosted community media across Canada.

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