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Health and Wellness are Priorities for Individual Canadians, but Less so for Government

Canadians see their own daily activities as the most important factor affecting their health, but governments spend only a tiny fraction of their health care budgets on health promotion.

Ottawa, February 13, 2013—Canadians see their own daily activities as the most important factor affecting their health, but governments spend only a tiny fraction of their health care budgets on health promotion. A Conference Board of Canada study, Health Matters: An Economic Perspective, suggests that incremental investments on public health today could produce long-term savings for individuals, the health care system and the economy.

Canadians appear to understand the connection between lifestyle and health. An EKOS Research Associates survey for The Conference Board of Canada’s Canadian Alliance for Sustainable Health Care revealed that 48 per cent of respondents feel daily activities have the greatest impact on the health of the average Canadian. No other factor was close – including income levels (18 per cent), the health care system (17 per cent), quality of food and water (10 per cent) and environmental factors (6 per cent).

This is an image which represents the report "health matters"“The health of Canadians is unquestionably a private matter, but it is increasingly becoming a public concern,” said Louis Thériault, Director, Health Economics, Canadian Alliance for Sustainable Health Care (CASHC). “The collective health of Canadians has implications for the public health care system and for the economy. Treating health and wellness as a policy priority, rather than focusing so much on health care, could contribute to a healthier population and a wealthier Canada.”

Governments have an opportunity to invest in health promotion in a way that benefits public health, the economy and their own fiscal positions. Health care costs have more than doubled in just 11 years, and health spending is crowding out government spending on other key services and programs.

Yet, in 2011, Canadian governments allocated an estimated 6.2 per cent of its health expenditures to public health, leaving Canada in the middle of the pack among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries. Moreover, promotion of population health and wellness is only a fraction of public health spending. 

Population health measures, such as health protection and the promotion of awareness about illnesses, can be cost-effective. Initiatives that target lifestyle changes (such as tobacco-use cessation and physical activity programs) or secondary prevention (through drug interventions) deserve attention.

The Conference Board estimates that, in 2010, ten selected chronic diseases cost the economy $119 billion, because short- and long-term disability reduced productivity and higher rates of mortality led to loss of future income. The Public Health Agency of Canada estimated that these same conditions cost the economy $79 billion in 2000, illustrating how the cost burden has grown.

Lifestyle factors can significantly affect health outcomes. Some factors – such as aging and genetics – cannot be modified. But four key modifiable factors have significant impacts on health: smoking; alcohol consumption; nutrition and dietary patterns; and physical activity. Studies indicate that heavy drinkers, daily smokers, and obese people are more likely to leave the workforce prematurely.

Canadians surveyed by EKOS see these specific behaviours as crucial factors in maintaining personal health: 

  • Not smoking was seen as very important by 82 per cent of Canadians. 
  • Being physically active was seen as very important by 76 per cent. 
  • Nutrition or eating a well-balanced diet was seen as very important by 74 per cent. 
  • Not drinking too much alcohol was seen as very important by 44 per cent of respondents; another 42 per cent said it was somewhat important.

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