The Canadian Medical Association supports a national strategy to assist communities in the development and implementation of comprehensive health plans to address short- or long-term adverse effects associated with a sudden change in the economic climate.
The Canadian Medical Association supports a national strategy to assist communities in the development and implementation of comprehensive health plans to address short- or long-term adverse effects associated with a sudden change in the economic climate.
The Canadian Medical Association supports a national strategy to assist communities in the development and implementation of comprehensive health plans to address short- or long-term adverse effects associated with a sudden change in the economic climate.
The Canadian Medical Association wishes to commend the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health for undertaking this study of the issue of chronic diseases related to aging.
It is a timely issue, since the first members of the Baby Boom generation turned 65 in 2011 and it's predicted that by 2031 a quarter of Canada's population will be 65 or older. Though chronic disease is not exclusive to seniors, its prevalence does rise with age: according to Statistics Canada, about 74% of Canadians over 65 have at least one chronic condition such as diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis or depression and nearly 25% have three or more. The proportion is higher among people 85 years old and over.
What are the causes of chronic disease? There are many. Some of them are rooted in unhealthy behaviour: smoking, poor nutrition and, in particular, lack of physical activity. Physicians are concerned about rising obesity rates in Canada, for example, because obesity increases one's risk of developing chronic diseases later in life.
But there is more to chronic disease than unhealthy behaviour. It is also affected by a person's biological and genetic makeup, as well as by his or her social environment. Lower income and educational levels, poor housing, and social isolation, which is a greater problem for seniors than for other populations, are all associated with poorer health status.
Now the good news: chronic disease is not an inevitable consequence of aging. We can delay the onset of chronic disease, and perhaps even reduce the risk that it will occur. Patients who do have existing chronic disease, their conditions can often be controlled successfully through appropriate health care and disease management, so that they can continue to lead active, independent lives.
Thus the CMA supports initiatives promoting healthy aging - which the Public Health Agency of Canada defines as "the process of optimizing opportunities for physical, mental and social health as people age." Healthy lifestyles should be encouraged at any age.
For example, the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines, which CMA supports, recommend that people 65 or older accumulate at least two-and-a-half hours per week of aerobic activity such as walking, swimming or cycling. Experts believe that healthy aging will compress a person's period of illness and disability into a short period just prior to death, enabling a longer period of healthy, independent and fulfilling life.
For those who are already affected with chronic diseases, treatment is long term and can be very complex. People with diabetes, for example, need a continuous ongoing program to monitor their blood sugar levels and maintain them at an appropriate level; people with arthritis or other mobility problems may require regular physical therapy. For the patient, chronic disease means a long-term management that is much more complicated than taking antibiotics for an infection. People with two or more chronic conditions may be consulting a different specialist for each, as well as seeking support from nurse counsellors, dieticians, pharmacists, occupational therapists, social workers or other health professionals.
Often, management requires medication. The majority of Canadians over 65 take at least one prescription drug, and nearly 15% are on five drugs or more, which increases the possibility that, for example, two of those drugs could interact negatively with each other to produce unpleasant and possibly serious side effects.
Long-term, complex chronic disease care is in fact the new paradigm in our health care system. About 80% of the care now provided in the United States is for chronic diseases, and there is no reason to believe Canada is greatly different. Hence, it is worth considering what form, ideally, a comprehensive program of chronic disease management should take, for patients of any age.
The CMA believes it should include the following four elements:
* First, access to a primary care provider who has responsibility for the overall care of the patient. For more than 30 million Canadians, that primary care provider is a family physician. Family physicians who have established long-standing professional relationships with their patients, can better understand their needs and preferences. They can build a relationship of trust, so that patients are comfortable in discussing frankly how they want to treat their conditions: for example, whether to take medication for depression or seek counselling with a therapist. The family physician can also serve as a co-ordinator of the care delivered by other providers. This leads to our second recommended element:
* Collaborative and coordinated care. The CMA believes that, given the number of providers who may be involved in the care of chronic diseases, the health care system should encourage the creation of interdisciplinary teams or, at minimum, enable a high level of communication and coordination among individual providers. We believe all governments should support:
o Interdisciplinary primary care practices, such as Family Health Networks in Ontario, which bring a variety of different health professionals and their expertise into one practice setting;
o Widespread use of the electronic health record, which can facilitate information sharing and communication among providers; and
o A smooth process for referral: for example, from family physician to specialists, or from family physician to physiotherapist. The CMA is working with other medical stakeholders to create a referral process tool kit that governments, health care organizations and practitioners can use to support the development of more effective and efficient referral systems.
The patient may also need non-medical support services to help cope with disability related to chronic disease. For example, a person with arthritis who wants to remain at home may need to have grab bars, ramps or stair lifts installed there. Ideally, a coordinated system of chronic disease management would also include referral to those who could provide these services.
* The third necessary element is support for informal caregivers. These are the unsung heroes of elder care. An estimated four million Canadians are providing informal, unpaid care to family members or friends. About a quarter of these caregivers are themselves 65 or older. Their burden can be a heavy one, in terms of both time and expense. Stress and isolation are common among caregivers.
The federal government has taken steps to provide much-needed support to informal caregivers. The most recent federal budget, for example, increased the amount of its Caregiver Tax Credit. We recommend that the government build on these actions, to provide a solid network of support, financial and otherwise, to informal caregivers.
* The fourth and final element is improving access to necessary services. Only physician and hospital services are covered through the Canada Health Act, and many other services are not. All provinces have pharmacare programs for people over 65, but coverage varies widely between provinces and many, particularly those with lower incomes, find it difficult to pay for their necessary medications. Seniors who do not have post-retirement benefit plans - and these are the majority - also need to pay out of pocket for dental care, physiotherapy, mental health care and other needed supports. We recommend that all levels of government explore adjusting the basket of services provided through public funding, to make sure that it reflects the needs of the growing number of Canadians burdened by chronic disease. In particular, we recommend that the federal government negotiate a cost-shared program of comprehensive prescription drug coverage with provincial/territorial governments.
In conclusion, the CMA believes the committee is wise to consider how we might reduce the impact - on individual patients, the health care system and society - of chronic disease related to aging. Chronic disease management is a complex problem, but warrants close attention as it is now the dominant form of health care in Canada. We look forward to the results of the Committee's deliberations.
Industrialization and manufacturing have had enormous positive benefits for humankind, but the consequences of hazardous by-products (chemical contamination) to human health and the environment are less well recognized. A major incident such as Bhopal is an unequivocal example of catastrophic poisoning caused by industry. However, more subtle human health impacts can result from low levels of exposure to chemical and industrial by-products from agriculture, consumer products, manufacturing, and even medical sources. Chemicals from industrial sources have been found in the soil, water, air, food and human tissue. Due to improving technology, even minuscule amounts of potentially noxious substances can be detected.
Some exposures warrant remedial action, but in others the health impact may be negligible: the toxin, dose, route and duration of exposure must be considered. Of course, there are potentially toxic substances that have been found to pose little or no harm to human health, but there are many more for which the health effects are unknown. A substantial knowledge gap exists in that the effects of many chemical agents have not been fully studied. As a result, rigorous surveillance and assessment to ensure potential health impacts are reduced or avoided is necessary. Chemicals like dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) can persist in the environment or in living beings long after the product was pulled from the market, making it essential that full and rigorous testing of new and existing chemicals is undertaken. Finally, research is needed to determine whether emerging issues, such as the presence of pharmaceuticals in drinking water, pose a legitimate threat to human health.
Chemicals, properly managed, can and will continue to provide enormous benefits to society, but caution is warranted because of the potential health consequences. Provided below is a discussion of certain classes of chemicals that need to be regulated, monitored and properly researched.
Agriculture represents the largest component of the global economy. Rising pressures to meet the needs of a growing population have resulted in the mechanization of farming, and the widespread use of fertilizers and pesticides.1 Fertilizer and pesticide run-off has been found in soil, water and the human food supply.2 Approximately 40 chemicals classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as known, probable, or possible human carcinogens, are EPA registered pesticides available on the open market.3 Long-term low dose pesticide exposure has been linked to various cancers, immune suppression, hormonal disruption, reproductive abnormalities, birth defects, and developmental and behavioural problems.4 Certain pesticides are also known to be persistent in the human body.5 While many individual pesticides can be safely used, there is a lack of research on the effect of certain pesticides when used in combination.
Modern technologies have led to advances with a positive impact on the quality of human life. While newer consumer products have benefits over earlier materials, their use is not without side effects. Both the chemicals used to make these products and those that form key components of the products themselves may be harmful. Bisphenol A (BPA) is an industrial chemical added to many hard plastic bottles and to metal based food and beverage cans since the 1960s.6 In August 2010, Statistics Canada reported that measurable levels of BPA were found in the urine of 91 per cent of Canadians aged six to 79.7 Concerns have been raised about effects on the brain, behaviour, and prostate gland from exposure to this chemical, particularly in fetuses, infants, and children.8 In 2008, Canada banned BPA in infant bottles.9 In October 2010, Canada went a step further by becoming the first jurisdiction in the world to declare BPA toxic.10
With the growing demand for consumer products, there has been a corresponding growth in manufacturing. Manufacturing is one of the biggest contributors to outdoor air pollution, and contributes to soil and water pollution.11 In 2004, US industry released 1.8 billion pounds of potentially toxic chemicals. Exposure to some of these chemicals has been linked to severe health effects, including cancer. 12 One of the released chemicals, dioxin, can be harmful at very low levels. Dioxins accumulate in fats and break down slowly. This leads to contamination of the food supply, and human exposure through the consumption of meat, dairy, fish and shellfish.13 Even in the far north, animals have been found to contain dioxins.14 The EPA estimates that the cancer risk from dioxins already present in the general public is 1-per-1,000.15 In most cases the emissions pose minimal risk to human health. However, chemicals, and chemical combinations which remain unstudied should be properly assessed.16
Advancements in medical science and the use of pharmaceuticals, diagnostic equipment and other medical treatments have prolonged life expectancy. However, these interventions can also contribute to environmental contamination. In 2008, the Associated Press reported pharmaceuticals in the water of 24 major metropolitan areas in the United States, serving 41 million people.17 There is a concern that these pharmaceuticals could negatively impact male fertility, lead to birth defects, cause breast and testicular cancer in humans, and lead to antibiotic resistance.18 For many pharmaceuticals found in water sources, no concerted environmental impact surveys have been carried out.19
Mercury is used in fever thermometers, sphygmomanometers, gastrointestinal tubes, and oesophageal dilators20. Reports indicate that medical waste incinerators are among the largest sources of anthropogenic mercury emissions in both the United States and Canada.21 Medical waste, while not the principle source of mercury poisoning, contributes to the mercury levels present in the environment. In fetuses, infants and children, low-dose exposure to mercury can cause severe and lifelong behavioural and cognitive problems.22 At higher exposure levels, mercury may adversely affect the kidneys, the immune, neurological, respiratory, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and haematological systems of adults.23 It has also been linked to cancer.24
These examples highlight the major categories of human exposure to chemicals. As the review suggests, some of these chemicals have been linked to harmful human health impacts. What is important to keep in mind, however, is that the harm is conditional on the level and lengths of exposure. For most people, these chemicals pose no harm because the exposure is so low. In some cases, such as BPA, it has been determined that the potential harm is not worth the risk: the Canadian government has decided to declare BPA toxic and regulate it accordingly. In other cases, such as pharmaceuticals, the evidence simply warrants further study and surveillance. Given the potential harm to human health, surveillance and research are vitally important in all categories. The more information that is available to policy makers and health care professionals, the better the chance of limiting human health impacts.
What has been done?
Concerns regarding chemical contamination and human health have led to numerous interventions from the international community. These include the International Programme on Chemical Safety (1980), the Inter-Organization Programme for the Sound Management of Chemicals (1995), the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling (2002), and the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management, which was adopted by governments and stakeholders at the first International Conference on Chemicals held in Dubai in 2006. 25
Various conventions have also been passed, including the Stockholm Convention (2004) on persistent organic pollutants such as DDT, and the Rotterdam Convention (2004) which applies to pesticides and industrial chemicals.26 There is some concern about the continued effectiveness of the Rotterdam convention. In 2006, the Canadian government was instrumental in preventing the listing of asbestos as a toxic chemical. Given the persuasive evidence of the harm caused by asbestos, this action undermines the legitimacy of voluntary international conventions.27
In addition to being a signatory to all international agreements listed above, the Canadian government has programs for chemical management domestically. The main tool is the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) 1999. Jointly administered by Environment Canada and Health Canada, it is intended to prevent pollution and address the potentially dangerous chemical substances to which Canadians are exposed.28 The plan calls for increased surveillance of certain chemicals to monitor exposure and health effects, and will increase focus on the management of the health and environmental risks of pharmaceuticals, personal care products, and chemical contamination in food.29
There were 23,000 chemical substances on the Domestic Substances List (DSL) in Canada in 1999. To date, only about 1,000 of these chemicals have been fully assessed. Of the remaining 22,000, 85% have been categorized as not requiring any additional action.30The most recent Canadian Chemicals Management Plan states that full assessments will be done on 550 substances identified as potentially harmful. Even with these additional assessments, more than 3,000 chemicals will not have been assessed.
Canadian Medical Association
In 2009, the Canadian Medical Association and the Canadian Nurses Association released a joint position statement on environmentally responsible activity for the health-care sector. Recommendations included the proper handling and disposal of toxic chemicals and the reduction of products using these substances. An adapted version of this position statement was then endorsed by a coalition of 12 national healthcare organizations and the David Suzuki Foundation.
In October 2010, the World Medical Association, of which CMA is a member, adopted a policy statement on environmental degradation and the management of chemicals. The statement calls for mercury-free health care, support for international efforts to restrict chemical pollution and to monitor harmful chemicals in humans and the environment, and mitigation of the health effects of toxic exposure to chemicals.
What needs to be done?
Research and Surveillance
Research on chemicals produced through man-made activities remains insufficient. While some of the more toxic chemicals have been reviewed and are now more closely regulated, thousands remain that have had neither health nor environmental assessments. The Domestic Substances List in Canada has 3,300 chemicals of concern that have not been assessed. There is limited research on the effect of these chemicals in combination or in different mediums. Finally, work must be done to ensure environmental and human surveillance of potential chemical exposure threats.
1. Urges the government to complete the health and environmental assessment of the chemicals on the Domestic Substances List.
2. Encourages research on the health impacts of chemical substances, as well as the combinations of these substances in different products (e.g. pesticides), and in different mediums (e.g. pharmaceuticals in drinking water). Long-term research programs are required to determine health impacts from prolonged low-dose exposures.
3. Encourages ongoing surveillance of chemicals in the environment.
4. Encourages ongoing research on the impact of regulations and monitoring of chemicals on human health and the environment.
Regulations have been developed both internationally and domestically to undertake chemical management. However, gaps remain, largely due to the voluntary nature of the frameworks. Canada can play a lead role by respecting its commitments, seeking continued adherence to these agreements and providing leadership in developing effective domestic programs and legislation.
5. Urges the government to continue to support international efforts to manage chemical pollution. In particular CMA urges the government to fully support the principles of the Rotterdam Convention and support the listing of Asbestos as an Annex III toxic chemical.
6. Supports government legislation and regulation which reduces dangerous chemical pollution, detects and monitors harmful chemicals in both humans and the environment, mitigates the health effects of toxic exposures, and requires an environmental and health impact assessment prior to the introduction of a new chemical. Regulatory frameworks should be favoured over voluntary frameworks in order to ensure a level playing field for all manufacturers and to secure rapid and equitable health protection for all Canadians. CMA encourages the government to advocate for similar legislation internationally.
Physicians can participate in the monitoring of patients for potential health effects from chemical exposure. Additionally, physicians can be leaders in encouraging greener health care practices. Finally, physicians can support national medical organizations in developing clinical tools to assess patient risk to chemical exposure.
7. Supports the phase out of mercury and other persistent, bio-accumulating and toxic chemicals in health care devices and products.
8. Supports the development of effective and safe systems to collect and dispose of pharmaceuticals that are not consumed.
9. Supports the development of clinical tools for physicians to help assess their patients' risk from chemical exposures.
Education and Professional Development
Physicians have a role to play in educating their patients, the public, and current and future colleagues about the potential human health consequences of chemical contamination. Medical education and continuing professional development in this area could have a significant impact on human health.
10. Should assist in building professional and public awareness of the impact of the environment and global chemical pollutants on personal health.
11. Supports the development of locally appropriate continuing medical education on the clinical signs, diagnosis and treatment of diseases that are introduced into communities as a result of chemical pollution.
12. Encourages physicians to inform patients about the importance of safe disposal of pharmaceuticals that are not consumed.
National and International initiatives have substantially reduced the incidence of harmful chemical contamination, but more work is needed. Evidence of health effects (or lack thereof) may be strong for certain chemicals, but for others it remains incomplete. Given the dangers of chemicals such as dioxin, which can cause severe effects with small doses, more comprehensive research is warranted. To ensure human health consequences are identified and risks are minimized, improved surveillance is essential.
Further policies and regulations are needed to ensure that chemicals utilized are as safe as possible. The Canadian BPA ban demonstrates the use of the precautionary principle in the presence of convincing if not complete evidence. While there are clear benefits associated with the use of chemicals, it is necessary to ensure that potential harmful effects are considered.'
Finally, public and health care provider information is sorely lacking. Physicians can play a role in correcting some of these deficiencies through their actions to support research and surveillance, advocacy, leadership, education, and professional development.
1 Ongley, Edwin D. (1996) Control of water pollution from agriculture- FAO irrigation and drainage paper 55.Chapter 1: Introduction to agricultural water pollution Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Available at: http://www.fao.org/docrep/w2598e/w2598e00.HTM
2 Peters, Ruud J.B. (2006) Man-Made Chemicals in Food Products. TNO Built Environment and Geosciences. Available at: http://assets.panda.org/downloads/tno_report.pdf
3 Reuben, Suzanne H. (2010) Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now: 2008-2009 Annual Report. President's Cancer Panel. Available at: http://deainfo.nci.nih.gov/advisory/pcp/annualReports/pcp08-09rpt/PCP_Report_08-09_508.pdf
4 Reuben, Suzanne H. (2010) Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk...; Shah, Binod P. & Bhupendra Devkota (2009) "Obsolete Pesticides: Their Environmental and Human Health Hazards." The Journal of Agriculture and Environment. Vol:10 June 2009. Available at: http://www.nepjol.info/index.php/AEJ/article/view/2130/1961 ; Kjellstrom, Tord et.al. (2006) Chapter 43: Air and Water Pollution: Burden and Strategies for Control in Disease Control Priorities in Developing Countries. Disease Control Priorities Project. Available at: http://files.dcp2.org/pdf/DCP/DCP43.pdf
5 California Environmental Protection Agency (2002) Environmental Protection Indicators for California: Chapter 3: Environmental Exposure Impacts Upon Human Health. Available at: http://oehha.ca.gov/multimedia/epic/2002reptpdf/Chapter3-7of8-HumanHealth.pdf
6 United States Food and Drug Administration (2010) Update on Bisphenol A for Use in Food Contact Applications. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/newsevents/publichealthfocus/ucm064437.htm
7 CBC News (October 13, 2010) BPA declared toxic by Canada. Available at: http://www.cbc.ca/health/story/2010/10/13/bpa-toxic.html
8 States Food and Drug Administration (2010) Update on Bisphenol A...
9 Health Canada (2008) Government of Canada Protects Families with Bisphenol A Regulations Available at: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ahc-asc/media/nr-cp/_2008/2008_167-eng.php
10 CBC News (October 13, 2010) BPA declared toxic by Canada...
11 Kjellstrom, Tord et.al. (2006) Chapter 43: Air and Water Pollution...
12 Cassady, Alison & Alex Fidis (2007) Toxic Pollution and Health: An Analysis of Toxic Chemicals Released in Communities across the United States. U.S. PIRG Education Fund. Available at: http://cdn.publicinterestnetwork.org/assets/KTfes5EXnCLOgG9eWTKU6g/ToxicPollutionandHealth2007.pdf
13 World Health Organization (2010) Dioxins and their effects on human health. Available at: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs225/en/index.html
14 Woolford, Julian & Noemi Cano Ed. (2006) Killing them softly...
15 Cassady, Alison & Alex Fidis (2007) Toxic Pollution and Health...
17 Natural Resources Defense Council (2010) Dosed Without Prescription: Preventing Pharmaceutical Contamination of Our Nation's Drinking Water. Available at: http://www.nrdc.org/health/files/dosed4pgr.pdf
18 Wright-Walters, Maxine & Conrad Volz (2009) Municipal Wastewater Concentrations of Pharmaceutical and Xeno-Estrogens: Wildlife and Human Health Implications. Available at: http://www.chec.pitt.edu/Exposure_concentration_of_Xenoestrogen_in_pharmaceutical_and_Municipal_Wastewater__Final8-28-07%5B1%5D.pdf; Daughton, Christian G. (N.D.) Pharmaceuticals and the Environment. Available at: www.epa.gov/osp/regions/emerpoll/daughton.ppt; Nikolaou, Anastasia; Meric, Sureyya & Despo Fatta (2007) "Occurrence patterns of pharmaceuticals in water and wastewater environments." Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry. 387: 1225-1234; Natural Resources Defense Council (2010) Dosed Without Prescription...
19 Daughton, Christian G. (N.D.) Pharmaceuticals and the Environment...
20 Environment Canada. (N.D.)Mercury and the Environment. Available at: http://www.ec.gc.ca/MERCURY/SM/EN/sm-mcp.cfm#MD
21 Health Care Without Harm (2007) The Global Movement for Mercury Free Health Care. Available at: http://www.noharm.org/lib/downloads/mercury/Global_Mvmt_Mercury-Free.pdf; World Health Organization (2005) Mercury in Health Care: Policy Paper. Available at: http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/medicalwaste/mercurypolpaper.pdf
22 Environmental Working Group (N.D.) Chemical Pollution: The Toll on America's Health. Available at: http://www.ewg.org/files/EWG-kid-safe-toll-on-health.pdf
23 California Environmental Protection Agency (2002) Environmental Protection Indicators...
24 Reuben, Suzanne H. (2010) Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk...
25 World Health Organization (N.D.) International Programme on Chemical Safety: About us. Available at: http://www.who.int/ipcs/en/; World Health Organization (N.D.) Inter-Organization Programme for the Sound Management of Chemicals. Available at: http://www.who.int/iomc/brochure/brochure_english.pdf; United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (N.D.) Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS). Available at: http://www.unece.org/trans/danger/publi/ghs/ghs_welcome_e.html; Weinberg, Jack (2008) An NGO Guide to SAICM: The Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management. Available at: http://www.ipen.org/ipenweb/documents/book/saicm%20introduction%20english.pdf
26 Eskenazi, Brenda et.al. (2009) "The Pine River Statement: Human Health Consequences of DDT Use." Environmental Health Perspectives. 117:1359-1367 Available at: http://www.eoearth.org/article/Human_Health_Consequences_of_DDT_Use#gen4; World Health Organization (N.D.) Rotterdam Convention: Share Responsibility. Available at: http://www.pic.int/home.php?type=t&id=5&sid=16
27 Kazan-Allen, Laurie (2007) Rotterdam Treaty Killed by Chrysotile Asbestos! International Ban Asbestos Secretariat. Available at: http://www.ibasecretariat.org/lka_rott_meet_geneva_oct_06.php
28 Government of Canada (2007) The Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA 1999). Available at: http://www.chemicalsubstanceschimiques.gc.ca/about-apropos/cepa-lcpe-eng.php
29 Government of Canada (2010) Chemicals Management Plan. Available at: http://www.chemicalsubstanceschimiques.gc.ca/plan/index-eng.php
Health equity is created when individuals have the opportunity to achieve their full health potential; equity is undermined when preventable and avoidable systematic conditions constrain life choices.1 These conditions are known as the social determinants of health. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines the social determinants of health as the circumstances in which people are born, develop, live and age.2 In 2002, researchers and policy experts at a York University conference identified the following list: income and income distribution; early life; education; housing; food security; employment and working conditions; unemployment and job security; social safety net; social inclusion/exclusion; and health services. 3
Research suggests that 15% of population health is determined by biology and genetics, 10% by physical environments, 25% by the actions of the health care system, with 50% being determined by our social and economic environment.4 Any actions to improve health and tackle health inequity must address the social determinants and their impact on daily life.5
THE SOCIAL DETERMINANTS OF HEALTH AND HEALTH STATUS
Social status is one of the strongest predictors of health at the population level. There is a social gradient of health such that those with higher social status experience greater health than those with lower social status. The social gradient is evident not only when comparing the most disadvantaged to the most advantaged; within each strata, even among those holding stable middle-class jobs, those at the lowest end fare less well than those at the higher end. The Whitehall study of civil servants in the United Kingdom found that lower ranking staff have a greater disease burden and shorter life expectancy than higher-ranking staff.6 Differences in medical care did not account for the differences in mortality.7 This gradient has been demonstrated for just about any health condition.8
Hundreds of research papers have confirmed that people in the lowest socio-economic groups carry the greatest burden of illness.9 In 2001, people in the neighbourhoods with the highest 20% income lived about three years longer than those in the poorest 20% neighbourhoods (four years for men; two years for women).10 Dietary deficiencies, common in food insecure households, can lead to an increased chance of chronic disease and greater difficulty in disease management. It is estimated that about 1.1 million households in Canada experience food insecurity, with the risk increasing in single-parent households and in families on social assistance.11
Studies suggest that adverse socio-economic conditions in childhood can be a greater predictor of cardiovascular disease and diabetes in adults than later life circumstances and behavioural choices.12 Effective early childhood development offers the best opportunity to reduce the social gradient and improve the social determinants of health,13 and offers the greatest return on investment.14
Low income contributes not only to material deprivation but social isolation as well. Without financial resources, it is more difficult for individuals to participate in cultural, educational and recreational activities or to benefit from tax incentives. Suicide rates in the lowest income neighbourhoods are almost twice as high as in the wealthiest neighbourhoods.15 This social isolation and its effects are most striking in Canada's homeless population. Being homeless is correlated with higher rates of physical and mental illness. In Canada, premature death is eight to 10 times higher among the homeless.16
The gradient in other social determinants can have an adverse impact as well. A study conducted in the Netherlands estimated that average morbidity and mortality in the overall population could be reduced 25-50% if men with lower levels of education had the same mortality and morbidity levels as those men with a university education.17 Employment status also follows this gradient, such that having a job is better than being unemployed. 18 Unemployment is correlated with increased blood pressure, self-reported ill health, drug abuse, and reductions in normal activity due to illness or injury.19 Unemployment is associated with increases in domestic violence, family breakups and crime. Finally, job security is relevant.20 Mortality rates are higher among temporary rather than permanent workers.21
Canada's Aboriginal people face the greatest health consequences as a result of the social determinants of health. Poverty, inadequate or substandard housing, unemployment, lack of access to health services, and low levels of education characterize a disproportionately large number of Aboriginal peoples.22 The crude mortality rate for First Nations is higher and life expectancy lower than the Canadian average.23 Aboriginal peoples experience higher rates of chronic disease, addictions, mental illness and childhood abuse.24 Aboriginal peoples have higher rates of suicide, with suicide being the leading cause of potential years of life lost in both the First Nations and Inuit populations.25
THE SOCIAL DETERMINANTS OF HEALTH AND CANADA'S HEALTH SYSTEM
These differences in health outcomes have an impact on the health care system. Most major diseases including heart disease and mental illness follow a social gradient with those in lowest socio-economic groups having the greatest burden of illness.26 Those within the lowest socio-economic status are 1.4 times more likely to have a chronic disease, and 1.9 times more likely to be hospitalized for care of that disease.27 Chronic diseases such as diabetes account for 67% of direct health care costs and 60% indirect costs.28
Research has shown that Canadians with low incomes are higher users of general practitioner, mental health, and hospital services.29 People in the lowest income group were almost twice as likely as those in the highest income group to visit the emergency department for treatment. 30 Part of this may be caused by differences in access to care. Low-income Canadians are more likely to report that they have not received needed health care in the past 12 months.31 Those in the lowest income groups are 50% less likely than those in the highest income group to see a specialist or get care in the evenings or on weekends, and 40% more likely to wait more than five days for a doctor's appointment.32
Barriers to health care access are not the only issue. Research in the U.K.33 and U.S.34 has found that compliance with medical treatment tends to be lower in disadvantaged groups, leading to pain, missed appointments, increased use of family practice services and increased emergency department visits, and corresponding increases in cost. In the U.S., non-adherence has been attributed to 100,000 deaths annually.35 Researchers have reported that those in the lowest income groups are three times less likely to fill prescriptions, and 60% less able to get needed tests because of cost.36
These differences have financial costs. In Manitoba for example, research conducted in 1994 showed that those in the lowest income decile used services totaling $216 million (12.2%). In the same year, those in the highest income decile consumed $97 million (5.5%) of expenditures. If expenditures for the bottom half of the population by income had been the same as the median, Manitoba would have saved $319 million or 23.1% of their health care budget. 37 According to a 2011 report, low-income residents in Saskatoon consume an additional $179 million in health care costs than middle income earners.38
To reduce the burden of illness and therefore system costs, Canada needs to improve the underlying social and economic determinants of health of Canadians. However, until these changes have time to improve the health status of the population, there will still be a large burden of illness correlated to these underlying deficiencies. As a result, the health system will need to be adequately resourced to address the consequences of the social determinants of health.
AREAS FOR ACTION
The WHO Commission on the Social Determinants of Health identified four categories through which actions on social determinants can be taken. These include:
* reducing social stratification by reducing inequalities in power, prestige, and income linked to socio-economic position;
* decreasing the exposure of individuals and populations to the health-damaging factors they may face;
* reducing the vulnerability of people to the health damaging conditions they face; and
* intervening through health care to reduce the consequences of ill health caused by the underlying determinants.39
All of these areas offer possibilities for action by the physician community. The following section provides suggestions for action by the medical profession through: CMA and national level initiatives; medical education; leadership and research; and clinical practice.
CMA and national level initiatives
Despite the strong relationship between the social determinants of health and health, little in the way of effective action has resulted. CMA and its partners can and should, advocate for research and push for informed healthy public policy, including health impact assessments for government policies. Additionally, targeted population health programs aimed at addressing the underlying determinants should be supported.
All Canadians need a better understanding of the health trends and the impacts of various social and economic indicators. Information about the differences in specific health indicators, collected over time,40 is essential to the task of describing underlying health trends and the impacts of social and economic interventions. Data within primary care practices could be assembled into (anonymous) community-wide health information databases, to address this need.
CMA recommends that:
1. The federal government recognize the relationship of the social determinants of health on the demands of the health care system and that it implement a requirement for all cabinet decision-making to include a Health Impact Assessment.
2. Options be examined for minimizing financial barriers to necessary medical care including pharmaceuticals and medical devices necessary for health.
3. Federal and provincial/territorial governments examine ways to improve the social and economic circumstances of all Canadians.
4. Efforts be made to educate the public about the effect of social determinants on individual and population health.
5. Appropriate data be collected and reported on annually. This data should be locally usable, nationally comparable and based on milestones across the life course.
Medical education is an effective means to provide physicians with the information and tools they require to understand the impact of social determinants on the health of their patients and deal with them accordingly.41 In 2001, Health Canada published a report in which they stated that the primary goal of medical education should be the preparation of graduates who know how to reduce the burden of illness and improve the health of the communities in which they practice.42 Among the report's recommendations was a call for greater integration of the social determinants in medical curricula.43 Although the CanMEDS framework has been a part of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada's accreditation process since 2005, challenges to the integration of these competencies remain.44
The report called for a greater emphasis on providing medical students with firsthand experiences in the community and with distinct populations (service learning),45 which addresses the difficulties in teaching the social aspects of medicine within a traditional classroom or hospital setting.46 Many such programs exist across the country.47 However, these programs are still limited and there is a need to increase the availability of longitudinal programs which allow students to build on the skills they develop throughout medical school.
Increasingly residency programs which focus on the social determinants of health are being offered.48 These programs are a means of providing physicians with the proper tools to communicate with patients from diverse backgrounds49 and reduce behaviours that marginalized patients have identified as barriers to health services.50 It also provides residents with physician role models who are active in the community. However, medical residents note a lack of opportunities to participate in advocacy during residency.51 Further, while experiential programs are effective in helping to reduce barriers between physicians and patients from disadvantaged backgrounds, greater recruitment of medical students from these marginalized populations should also be explored and encouraged.
Finally, physicians in practice need to be kept up to date on new literature and interventions regarding the social determinants. Innovations which help address health equity in practice should be shared with interested physicians. In particular, there is a need for accredited continuing medical education (CME) and a means to encourage uptake.52
CMA recommends that:
6. Greater integration of information on the social determinants and health inequity be provided in medical school to support the CanMEDS health advocate role
7. All medical schools and residency programs offer service learning programs, to provide students with an opportunity to work with diverse populations in inner city, rural and remote settings, and to improve their skills in managing the impact of the social determinants on their patients.
8. CME on the social determinants of health and the physician role in health equity be offered and incentivized for practising physicians.
Leadership and research
Within many communities in Canada, there are physicians who are working to address social determinants and health equity within the patient populations they serve. This is done in many cases through collaboration with partners within and outside of the health care system. Providing these local physician leaders with the tools they need to build these partnerships, and influence the policies and programs that affect their communities is a strategy that needs to be explored.
Evidence-based research about health equity, the clinical setting and the role of physicians is underdeveloped. Interested physicians may wish to participate in research about practice level innovations, as a means of contributing to the evidence base for 'health equity' interventions or simply to share best practices with interested colleagues. Further, physicians can provide the medical support to encourage the adoption of early childhood development practices for example, which support later adult health. In time, research will contribute to training, continuing medical education and potentially to clinical practice guidelines.
Physicians can provide leadership in health impact assessments and equity audits within the health care system as well. Data is essential to identify health equity challenges within a program, to propose and test measures that address the issues underlying the disparities. Formal audits and good measurement are essential to develop evidence-based policy improvements.53 Innovative programs such as those within the Saskatoon Health Region and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto are examples of using these tools to improve access and reduce inequities.
CMA recommends that:
9. Physicians who undertake leadership and advocacy roles should be protected from repercussions in the workplace, e.g., the loss of hospital privileges.
10. Physician leaders explore opportunities to strengthen the primary care public health interface within their communities by working with existing agencies and community resources.
11. Physician leaders work with their local health organizations and systems to conduct health equity impact assessments in order to identify challenges and find solutions to improve access and quality of care.
12. Physicians be encouraged to participate in or support research on best practices for the social determinants of health and health equity. Once identified, information sharing should be established in Canada and internationally.
In consultation with identified health equity physician champions, a number of clinical interventions have been identified which are being undertaken by physicians across the country. These interventions could be undertaken in many practice settings given the right supports, and could be carried out by various members of the collaborative care team.1
First, a comprehensive social history is essential to understand how to provide care for each patient in the context of their life.54 There are a number of tools that can be used for such a consultation and more are in development.55 However, consolidation of the best ideas into a tool that is suitable for the majority of health care settings is needed. There is some concern that asking these questions is outside of the physician role. The CanMEDS health advocate role clearly sees these types of activities as part of the physician role.56 The 'Four Principles of Family Medicine' defined by the College of Family Physicians of Canada, affirms this role for physicians as well.57
Community knowledge was identified as a strategy for helping patients. Physicians who were aware of community programs and services were able to refer patients if/when social issues arose.58 Many communities and some health providers have developed community resource guides.59 For some physicians, developing a network of community resources was the best way to understand the supports available.
As a corollary, physicians noted their work in helping their patients become aware of and apply for the various social programs to which they are entitled. The programs vary by community and province/territory, and include disability, nutritional supports and many others. Most if not all of these programs require physicians to complete a form in order for the individual to qualify. Resources are available for some of these programs,60 but more centralized supports for physicians regardless of practice location or province/territory are needed.
Physicians advocate on behalf of their patients by writing letters confirming the medical limitations of various health conditions or the medical harm of certain exposures.61 For example, a letter confirming the role of mold in triggering asthma may lead to improvements in the community housing of an asthmatic. Additionally, letters might help patients get the health care services and referrals that they require. As identified leaders within the community, support from a physician may be a 'game-changer' for patients.
Finally, the design of the clinic, such as hours of operation or location, will influence the ability of people to reach care.62
CMA recommends that:
13. Tools be provided for physicians to assess their patients for social and economic causes of ill health and to determine the impact of these factors on treatment design.
14. Local databases of community services and programs (health and social) be developed and provided to physicians. Where possible, targeted guides should be developed for the health sector.
15. Collaborative team-based practice be supported and encouraged.
16. Resources or services be made available to physicians so that they can help their patients identify the provincial/territorial and federal programs for which they may qualify.
17. Physicians be cognizant of equity considerations when considering their practice design and patient resources.
18. All patients be treated equitably and have reasonable access to appropriate care, regardless of the funding model of their physician.
Socio-economic factors play a larger role in creating (or damaging) health than either biological factors or the health care system. Health equity is increasingly recognized as a necessary means by which we will make gains in the health status of all Canadians and retain a sustainable publicly funded health care system. Addressing inequalities in health is a pillar of CMA's Health Care Transformation initiative. Physicians as clinicians, learners, teachers, leaders and as a profession can take steps to address the problems on behalf of their patients.
1 A full review of the consultations is provided in the companion paper The Physician and Health Equity: Opportunities in Practice.
1 Khalema, N. Ernest (2005) Who's Healthy? Who's Not? A Social Justice Perspective on Health Inequities. Available at: http://www.uofaweb.ualberta.ca/chps/crosslinks_march05.cfm
2 World Health Organization (2008) Closing the gap in a generation: Health equity through action on the social determinants of health: Executive Summary. Available at: http://whqlibdoc.who.int/hq/2008/WHO_IER_CSDH_08.1_eng.pdf
3 Public Health Agency of Canada (N.D.) The Social Determinants of Health: An Overview of the Implications for Policy and the Role of the Health Sector. Available at: http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/ph-sp/oi-ar/pdf/01_overview_e.pdf
4 Keon, Wilbert J. & Lucie Pépin (2008) Population Health Policy: Issues and Options. Available at: http://www.parl.gc.ca/Content/SEN/Committee/392/soci/rep/rep10apr08-e.pdf
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