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Health as if everybody counted blog


So you think you have free health care?

Posted by guest blogger Sarah Giles
guest blogger Sarah Giles
Sarah Giles is a family physician with an interest in remote and rural medicine.
User is currently offline
on Tuesday, 09 October 2012
in CHNET-Works!

Many doctors do not openly discuss the social determinants of health. It's the dirty little secret of Canadian medicine: income makes a huge difference to your health. In the land of "free" health care, living in poverty is still going to have the biggest effect on a patient's health.

At the recent Canadian Medical Association annual meeting in Yellowknife, doctors finally seemed to acknowledge the poverty=poor health situation. Why has it taken so long for doctors to acknowledge the problem? A cynic might say that it is because the vast majority of doctors come from privileged backgrounds, have an income in the top 5% of Canadians, and generally don't care about or understand the poor. A more forgiving person might argue that, coming from such privileged backgrounds and having little to no formal teaching on the subject, many doctors are unaware of the devastating impact of poverty on their patients. And, in fairness, some doctors do not get much exposure to the poor.

A wise physician once told me: "If you don't know your patient's financial situation, you don't know your patient." Truer words have never been uttered. Yesterday I saw a wheezing little boy in clinic. He is a known asthmatic who had not taken his puffers in 3 months. It would have been easy to dismiss the mother as lazy and "non-compliant". Instead, the aunt (who recently gained custody of the little boy), explained to me that she was now looking after 4 children and could not afford the insurance co-pay on these potentially life-saving medications. She didn't qualify for income support and she had insurance – but she still couldn't afford the medications. So much for universal health care.

Patients with low socioeconomic status face a number of challenges within our system. For the homeless, the first challenge is getting a health card. You need a fixed address to get one and then the organizational skills to hold on to it and renew it every few years. Small wonder that the homeless go to the ER more than almost any population – that's the only place they will be seen without a health card.

Let's say that you are on income support or disability. Your health should be good, right? You likely have housing, get your meds covered, and can even access some allied health resources. But can you afford to eat? Studies show that, actually, in Ontario you can't afford to eat a healthy diet on income support. And, even if you could, you likely live in an area where there are lots of expensive "convenience" stores but very few places to buy fresh produce or healthy foods with a short shelf-life. It's much easier to buy crappy food than anything with nutritional value. So, you put on some weight and develop diabetes. Your meds are covered but since your family doctor isn't part of one of those fancy health teams that you get in rich neighbourhoods, you can't access a dietitian because you Community Health Centre hasn't been able to fill the position and all of the other dietitians charge $70 per hour to tell you what you already know – eat better (more expensive and inaccessible) food.

giles-guest-blog-pic-1 giles-guest-blog-pic-2
Healthy foods are available in some low-income neighbourhoods,
but often "it's much easier to buy crappy food."
Photos: T. Schrecker

Now let's pretend that you have developed crippling insomnia. You can't sleep. You got fired from your last job for falling asleep during the day because you couldn't sleep at night. You are now on income support but that's going to run out soon. You are sure you could get back into the work force if you could just sleep six hours per night. You have tried trazodone and amitriptyline – the infamously ineffective sleep aids – but they didn't work. Your doctor now gives you an option: try zopiclone – a sleep aid that works and has little addictive potential – or try clonazepam – a highly addictive benzodiazepine that requires higher and higher doses as your body becomes habituated to it and a drug with considerable street value. The choice is obvious, you want zopiclone. Unfortunately, the provincial formulary will only cover the highly addictive medication with a street value. Zopiclone will cost you at least a dollar a day – a dollar you don't have.

Nobody ever claimed that life was fair. It is intuitively obvious that the more money you have, the more access you have to goods and services. But should money make such a difference that it can determine how healthy you will be or how long you will live? If we, as Canadians, want to continue to be proud of our "universal" health care, we need to make some changes.

Provincial and non-insured health benefits (NIHB) formularies are set by a bunch of experts sitting in a room. The formulary, to those of us in practice, seems to be arbitrary. There is no explanation as to why one drug is covered and another is not. Recent drug shortages have made life even more difficult as drugs that I would commonly substitute in for a short drug are often not on formulary (for instance, amitriptyline is covered but we couldn't get any; gabapentin is not covered for anything other than seizures so I had nothing to give my patients with neuropathic pain). I'm not sure why we need ten drugs in one category covered when we could have three instead, buy in bulk, and use those savings to incorporate other drugs into the formulary.

Provincial and NIHB formularies need to help doctors decrease addictions to opioids and benzodiazepines. They could do this by covering medications that are currently believed to be less addictive. For instance, I can prescribe OxyNeo (the new version of Oxycontin) until the cows come home but prescribing a long fentanyl patch or long acting codeine requires special forms. Doctors can prescribe massive doses of narcotics but need a special license to prescribe the meds required to help people break their addictions (Suboxone and methadone). Certain non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) require special permission but massive doses of benzodiazepines don't raise flags in the system. Private insurance fills these gaps for many patients, but creates a two-tiered system.

When poor people get injured their lack of access to out patient allied health services (such as physiotherapy) and non-addictive medications decreases their chances of returning to the work force. If outpatient allied health services were easily available to patients, they would be able to get off of income support faster and be less likely to remain in chronic pain.

Imagine if the thousands of people off work for mental health reasons were able easily to access free psychological help? In Ottawa, the going rate for a psychologist is $160/hr. I know of very few people who can afford this. If they could afford it, many people could remain in the work force or stay off of the streets. Instead, we rely on NGOs to provide care that should really be universally available.

In short, I'm sick of being a doctor who sees such discrepancies in the availability of care, medication, and overall health status between the poor and the rich. I am glad that the CMA is finally taking note of the problem – but how are we going to address it? Having the current Canadian government pull the social safety net out from under those who have the most precarious balance is not going to help matters. Is it only a matter of time before I recommend that patients find a way to get sent to jail so that they can get the medication, rehab, and care they require? There has got to be a better way.

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People who get it, Part 2

Posted by Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker is a clinical scientist at the Élisabeth Bruyère Research Institut
User is currently offline
on Friday, 14 September 2012
in CHNET-Works!

I've tried to make the case in previous postings for considering public finance as a public health issue. In a new article in Foreign Affairs,(1) Massachusetts Institute of Technology political scientist Andrea Louise Campbell makes several relevant arguments. She isn't concerned with health, and she is writing in the US context, but many of the analytical issues are relevant to our situation.

Campbell starts with the observation that the percentage of GDP that Americans pay in taxes is lower than in any high-income country: 24.1 percent. In the OECD as a whole, the figure is lower only in Chile (which has no national personal income tax) and Mexico. For Canada, the figure is 32 percent – higher than the United States, but a dramatic contrast with the Nordic countries, Italy, Belgium, Austria and France, where the figures are over 40 percent. She also points out that the drastic increase in economic inequality in the US, in particular concentration at the top of the economic scale (the one percenters, defined literally and statistically), is partly attributable to cuts in personal income tax during the Bush II presidency. (We know by way of the work of Emmanuel Saez that it is also a consequence of a steady rise in the market incomes of the one-percenters that began circa 1980; the relation between that trend and subsequent public policies must be left for another posting.)

There is more to the picture, though. Campbell points out that the much higher tax revenues available to European governments come not from higher and strongly progressive income taxes, as we might like to think, but rather from high consumption taxes, which are actually regressive: in other words, their impact is proportionally larger as you move down the income scale "because lower-income households tend to spend everything they earn." What, then, accounts for the contrast between the US and most of continental Europe in such matters as poverty and income inequality? Part of the answer lies not on the revenue side, but rather on the expenditure side: "In Europe, regressive taxes are matched with highly redistributive states. In the United States, mildly progressive taxes are matched with a not very redistributive state." Still another contributor is the much higher prevalence of low-wage jobs in the US ... and although Campbell does not make the point, that in turn probably has a lot to do with the weakness of unions, in particular outside the public sector.

tom slaterTom Slater, University of Edinburgh

Geographer Tom Slater, at the University of Edinburgh, is likewise concerned with various dimensions of economic inequality. Much of his earlier work was concerned with the process of gentrification and how it disrupts the lives of people who are displaced. In one forthcoming paper, he offers a powerful critique of the "cottage industry" of neighbourhood effects research in urban studies. Like Campbell, he is not specifically concerned with health, but much of what he says is immediately relevant to the study of neighbourhood effects on health. It has already been pointed out, in a widely cited article by Steven Cummins and colleagues, that most of the usual study designs are likely to understate such effects, because they involve a static definition of place (normally with reference to residential location) rather than a relational one that reflects the complexities of daily life on limited resources.

Slater's critique is more fundamental: such studies presume that where people live is the problem, rather than asking "why do people live where they do in cities? If where any given individual lives affects their life chances as deeply as neighbourhood effects proponents believe, it seems crucial to understand why that individual is living there in the first place" (italics in original). Failing to begin by questioning the operations of an economic system that sorts people across metropolitan space based on their purchasing power in land and housing markets means that "neighbourhoods ... become the problem rather than the expression of the problem to be addressed." This warning should be kept in mind by health researchers who generally tend to shy away from such structural explanations, preferring instead to focus on how neighbourhoods are conducive to certain kinds of 'health behaviours' like smoking and unhealthy eating.

In another forthcoming paper, Slater borrows a term from a book edited by Robert Proctor and Londa Schiebinger - Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance – in which the contributors address the question of "what keeps ignorance alive, or allows it to be used as a political instrument?" Canadian readers even vaguely familiar with the track record of our current national government need no explanation of this question's importance. (Proctor's interest in this topic began with research on the tobacco industry's efforts to create doubt about the health effects of smoking; David Michaels, who has done superb work on how industries manufacture uncertainty with respect to impacts on health and the environment, is one of the contributors.)

Slater argues that a right-wing think tank in Britain has played an important role in producing and sustaining ignorance about the root causes of poverty, ascribing it to failures of personal responsibility and the creation of 'dependency' by already minimal programs of social provision in much the same way as the protagonists of welfare 'reform' in the United States during the 1990s. The Conservative-led government that came to power in 2010 enthusiastically adopted this analysis, proposing workfare requirements and multi-billion-pound cuts in benefits while ignoring research evidence that such measures "do not lift people out of poverty, but rather remove them from welfare rolls, expand dramatically the contingent of the working and non-working poor, and affect their daily existence negatively in almost every way imaginable." The lack of available jobs, as a result of decades of deindustrialization, is simply ignored - a point also made eloquently by Owen Jones in his book Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class.

These are superficial renderings of complex and important papers, but they have several key messages for everyone working in population and public health in Canada. First and foremost, we have much to learn from those working in disciplines that have no direct connection with health, and outside Canada. The retreat of the state in Canada from redistributive policies was well established before the financial crisis. Since then, in Canada as elsewhere, we have been told that expenditure cutbacks – "austerity" – were essential in order to keep government deficits from becoming unmanageable. Most current approaches to austerity are highly selective, though. They involve cuts to expenditures (or moratoria on new investments) that mainly benefit the least well-off; they demand little or no sacrifice from the wealthy; and they focus almost exclusively on the expenditure side. For example, as noted in a previous posting Ontario's Drummond Commission on the province's fiscal future was ordered not to consider the option of raising taxes from their historically low levels – a choice that has clear implications for any society's ability to provide the opportunity for a healthy life to all.

By now it should not be contentious to state that poverty and chronic economic insecurity are hazardous to health. It may not be stating the case too strongly to suggest that controversy on that point is manufactured, in the same sense that controversy about the health hazards of tobacco and the evidence for personal fecklessness as a major cause of poverty are manufactured. To be sure, there is much still to be learned about how social determinants of health affect health equity, but the apparent determination of research funding agencies not to support the relevant lines of inquiry itself merits study using the rubric of agnotology. Finally, Slater's trenchant critique of the neighbourhood effects literature addresses not only the limitations of a particular kind of inquiry, but also the imperative of methodological self-consciousness in all forms of research on health and its social determinants.

(1) Unfortunately, only a summary of the article is available for open access

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People who get it, Part 1

Posted by Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker is a clinical scientist at the Élisabeth Bruyère Research Institut
User is currently offline
on Wednesday, 05 September 2012
in CHNET-Works!

Optimism is hard to sustain these days. Canadian policy-makers and research funders seem to be losing much of their interest in social determinants of health; health policy remains unresponsive to evidence of easily remediable inequities within our health care systems. Lack of coverage for outpatient prescription drugs is one conspicuous example, as noted in the previous posting. So it's refreshing to feature three Ontario conferences organized by people who 'get' both health equity and social determinants of health. (Full disclosure: I am on the program of the first two events.)

richard wilkinson-1Richard Wilkinson, Professor Emeritus, University of Nottingham.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Health Promotion Ontario is a group of health promotion professionals now celebrating its 25th anniversary. On September 27, HPO is holding a one-day conference on the theme "Building Connections between Promoting Health and the Social Determinants of Health." Speakers include Ketan Shankardass of Sir Wilfrid Laurier University; Penny Sutcliffe, the Medical Officer of Health with the Sudbury and District Health Unit; and (via Skype) Richard Wilkinson, one of the world's leading authorities on economic inequalities and health.

In my experience, students in medicine and public health are often far ahead of their profs in understanding the social patterning of disparities in health, and the graduate students at the University of Toronto's School of Public Health provide a stellar example. On September 28, their annual student-led conference will be, to my knowledge, the first meeting in Canada specifically to address the theme "Health, Austerity and Affluence". The opening keynote will be given by Armine Yalnizyan, senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, which has a long-standing research program on economic inequality. Other speakers include David McKeown, Toronto's Medical Officer of Health, whose department has a long history of foregrounding health equity issues in its work, notably in a 2008 report on income and health inequalities.

The following month, the Canadian Society for International Health hosts its annual conference in Ottawa (October 21-23). Especially noteworthy is the Sunday morning opening session, which features sociologist Saskia Sassen and economist Dean Jamison. Sassen, whose work was the topic of a previous posting, is one of the most thoughtful observers of globalization and its consequences for human well-being; she is not only an academic but also a multilingual advocate, who somehow finds time to write for publications like the wonderful Occupied Wall Street Journal. Jamison, formerly of the World Bank and now at the University of Washington, was one of the leaders of the Disease Control Priorities Project , whose 2006 book Disease Control Priorities in Developing Countries remains a valuable resource. (Unfortunately, the DCP project web site is temporarily out of service.) Even if you can't attend the entire conference, the Sunday session is well worth taking in if you are from the Ottawa area.

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Affordability of medications: (re)discovering the obvious

Posted by Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker is a clinical scientist at the Élisabeth Bruyère Research Institut
User is currently offline
on Friday, 17 August 2012
in CHNET-Works!

In an earlier posting, I mentioned research by Canada's Dennis Raphael, among others, on the difficulty of managing diabetes on a low income. The cost of a healthy diet is a major part of the problem; another is the cost of medications. In Ontario, prescription medications outside hospital are covered by public health insurance only for people over the age of 65 and for those on extremely low incomes. A new study by researchers at the University of Toronto (1) points out that this may be having a substantial impact on the health of people with diabetes.

We already knew that mortality among high-income Ontarians with diabetes has been declining faster than it has among those with low incomes, leading to a widening equity gap. Starting with a health records database including almost all Ontarians with diabetes and using median household incomes in the Statistics Canada dissemination area where they lived as a proxy for an individual's own income, the researchers found that the socioeconomic gradient for death, acute myocardial infarction (AMI) and stroke is substantially steeper among people under 65, who either pay out of pocket for their medications or rely on private insurance, than it is among those 65 and over whose prescription drugs are covered. "[A]s many as 5,000 deaths and nearly 2,700 AMIs or strokes could have been avoided among younger and middle-aged adults with diabetes if the gap between wealthier and poorer individuals had been identical to that seen among older groups. "

affordability-car-accident-If we could eliminate vehicle accidents as a cause of death in Ontario, wouldn’t we give it a shot?
Photo: Sean Whaley/Nevada News Bureau, reproduced under a
Creative Commons Licence 3.0.
To put that figure of 5,000 into perspective, that's the total number of people who died in Ontario motor vehicle accidents from 2002 through 2007, the years covered by the new study. If we could eliminate such accidents as a cause of death in this province, wouldn't we do it? And since the study looked only at the portion of the population with one disease, the overall toll of avoidable illness and death associated with lack of universal public insurance for prescription medications ("pharmacare") is almost certainly higher.

Lack of pharmacare kills, in other words. Nothing is especially new about this realization. The new study cites previous research on the problem of drug costs for diabetics ... and it's now been more than a decade since a landmark study by Robyn Tamblyn and colleagues showed that emergency department visits and hospital admissions increased, and use of essential medications decreased, after Québec introduced co-payments in its public drug coverage for senior citizens.

Pharmacare is not just an equity issue; it's also an efficiency issue. The market power available to a single public purchaser could be important tool for cost containment. Indeed an important analysis published in the fall of 2010, which appears to have sunk without a trace, suggested that the lack of pharmacare is one of the reasons that prescription drug costs in Canada have been growing faster than in most other OECD countries, and argued that national pharmacare would reduce drug costs by 11.7 – 42.8 percent relative to current practice.

Failing to provide public insurance coverage for prescription drugs outside hospitals doesn't save money. It simply means that fewer costs are borne by the public treasury, and more by private insurers or people who may not be able to pay out-of-pocket, sometimes with fatal consequences.

At least under the current national government, there seems no hope for a federally initiated program. Ontario is one of the few provinces that are probably large enough to go it alone; a consortium of smaller provinces could do the same. Until that happens, the avoidable illnesses and deaths will continue, and we who are concerned with equity should laugh hollowly at all official claims that health policy is evidence-based.

(1) Unfortunately, full text is not available for open access

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A question about body parts

Posted by Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker is a clinical scientist at the Élisabeth Bruyère Research Institut
User is currently offline
on Monday, 06 August 2012
in CHNET-Works!

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists recently published an unsettling four-part series on the sources of biological material that is used in such common medical devices as dental implants, heart valve replacements, and skin and bone grafts.  Its focus was on the US market, but it documented sourcing practices both in the United States and offshore that are, to say the least, questionable.  One egregious example involved a New York city-based operation run by a dentist named Michael Mastromarino, now serving federal prison time.  More details on this case are available from stories in New York Magazine, the Washington Post, and Philadelphia Magazine.

Most Canadians will remember the disastrous health consequences of failure to prevent contamination of the blood supply – a crisis that could have been controlled effectively by decision-makers within our borders, although it wasn’t.  The ICIJ series describes inadequately documented trade in other human biological materials, both within and across national borders.  In the United States, efforts to control hazardous imports are minimal and ineffective.  Health professionals interviewed for the series pointed out, for instance, that WalMart routinely tracks merchandise using bar codes, but these are not used to track potentially deadly tissue imports.

How well are Canadians protected from such hazards?  Whom can we ask, and how much trust should we place in the answers?  This is not a rhetorical question, but it’s one with important implications for public safety, and I invite responses from anyone who can shed light on the matter.  If no one can, then maybe it’s time for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to make this a strategic priority?

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