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Canada's pseudo-health care system relies on people getting sick, not staying well

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Image: Jamie/Flickr

Some geriatric specialists and health reformers have been claiming for years that a switch from curative to preventive health care would improve and prolong human life, and save many billions now spent on drugs, hospital stays and home care.

In the absence of a priority put on prevention in our perverse "illness treatment" system, we are left to fend for ourselves. Those of us who don't smoke, overeat or overindulge in alcohol, and who keep physically and mentally fit have a good chance of living a long and salubrious life.

Nothing is guaranteed, of course. Accidents do happen, and our fate is predestined to some extent by the genes we inherit. But the lifestyle we choose can often be the deciding factor in determining our lifespan.

Unfortunately, many people aren't free to choose the kind of lives they'd like to lead. If they're poor, not well-educated, trapped in grueling or unrewarding jobs, with arduous family responsibilities, their quality of life is often beyond their control. Without help, especially from the health-care system, they become prone to diseases they would otherwise avoid.

We live in an increasingly hostile world -- one crammed with germs, viruses and toxins that are inimical to our health. To protect us, our bodies have a tremendously powerful defence function -- the immune system -- that in theory (and for some of us in practice) can repel or destroy even the most dangerous microbial attackers.

That's what a U.S. physician, Dr. Ronald Glasser, assured us in The Body is the Hero, a book in which he argued that, for most forms of sickness, all a doctor can do for a patient is help the immune system do its job.

I couldn't agree more. Better still would be helping the immune system prevent the patient from getting sick in the first place. Prevention should be the top priority of any efficient public health care system, but the system in Canada, inexcusably, is focused almost entirely on the prescription of drugs after people get sick.

Prevention seldom prescribed

Of the $200 billion a year spent on our "illness-treatment" system, less than four per cent is devoted to prevention efforts -- mostly warning us against smoking, being overweight and lack of exercise. This is a horrendously perverse approach to health care. It leaves us pretty much on our own. We can only access medicare when we become ill. Then we have to depend on the prescriptions of the profit-driven pharmaceutical companies, by which time it's often too late.

Our entire medicare apparatus is fixated on the treatment and (if possible) cure of illness rather than its prevention. Drug companies, doctors, hospital administrators, nursing home operators, medical equipment makers -- even the scores of charitable cure-seeking organizations -- all operate on the assumption that "health care" begins only when people become ill. For them, an outbreak of sustained wellness would be catastrophic. Even our politicians benefit from the neglect of preventive measures since the big drug companies contribute generously to their election campaigns.

Whether they admit it or not, the fact is that all these illness-activated operators have a vested interest in sickness, not health. The system is geared almost entirely to treating our ailments. It assumes we'll get sick, is activated only when we get sick, and in fact depends on our getting sick. That's the only way all the billions spent on drugs, medical staff, technicians, high-tech gadgets, hospitals, clinics and nursing homes can be justified.

This is not to denigrate the dedication and integrity of the professionals who staff our hospitals and clinics. In the absence of good preventive measures, their services are indispensable. They do their best to heal us when we get sick, and sometimes succeed. But I'm sure many of them would prefer to work in a system that would help us stay well.

They know that it would be far less costly in the long run to eliminate or at least sharply reduce the social and economic determinants of bad health -- hunger, poverty and squalor -- than to try to cope medically with their debilitating effects. But doctors, nurses and other medical staff in Canada don't decide what kind of health-care services will be provided -- or not provided. That decision is left primarily to the big pharmaceutical companies that reap billions in profits from sickness, not health, and to whom our political leaders are meekly subservient.

That's why, of all the countries in the world with a public health-care system, Canada's is the only one that doesn't include pharmacare (or dental and vision care). The feeble excuse of our federal government is that these vital health care services are unaffordable.

Spending $12 billion or more of working people's tax payments on an environmentally polluting oil pipeline is affordable. So is lavishing multi-billions of taxpayer's dollars on big corporations like SNC-Lavalin and Bombardier. But providing the same comprehensive coverage as every other country in the world with a public health-care system? Unthinkable!

So we will remain mired in an illness-oriented travesty of health care. Our federal and most provincial governments will continue to deny many thousands of citizens the basic preventive and protective services that are standard practice in most other advanced nations.

And they will do so by coldly and callously funding such an outrage with the workers' own money.

Ed Finn grew up in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, where he worked as a printer's apprentice, reporter, columnist and editor of that city's daily newspaper, the Western Star. His career as a journalist included 14 years as a labour relations columnist for the Toronto Star. He was part of the world of politics between 1959 and 1962, serving as the first provincial leader of the NDP in Newfoundland. He worked closely with Tommy Douglas for some years and helped defend and promote medicare legislation in Saskatchewan.

Image: Jamie/Flickr

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