Health and wellness are priorities for individual Canadians, but less so for governments

Feb 13, 2013, 09:30 ET from Conference Board of Canada

OTTAWA, Feb. 13, 2013 /CNW/ - 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 understand the connection between their lifestyles and their health.
  • Four key modifiable factors have significant impacts on health: smoking; alcohol consumption; nutrition and dietary patterns; and physical activity.
  • Canadian governments spend just 6.2 per cent of their health budgets on public health even though small additional investments today could produce benefits 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).

"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.

Launched in 2011, CASHC is a five-year Conference Board program of research and dialogue. It will delve deeply into facets of Canada's health care challenge, including the financial, workplace, and institutional dimensions, in an effort to develop forward-looking qualitative and quantitative analysis and solutions to make the system more sustainable.

EKOS Research Associates conducted the survey with the support of the Canadian Medical Association, Accreditation Canada and CASHC, to update and refine the understanding of Canadian views on health and the health care system. The methodology involved a nationally representative survey of 2,047 Canadians 18 years of age and older - 519 were surveyed by telephone and 1,528 completed the survey online. The sample source for this study was members of the EKOS panel, which was specifically designed for online/telephone surveys, Results include a margin of errors of plus or minus 2.2 per cent 19 times out of 20. The survey took place in May 2012.

SOURCE Conference Board of Canada