Unhealthy excuses

Don’t blame poor eating habits and a failure to exercise on the recession

Unhealthy excusesThe global recession has not been a pleasant experience for most people. But it has boosted everyone’s supply of convenient excuses.

The Great Recession has been blamed for everything from an increase in child abuse in New Zealand to rising obesity in the U.S. Anyone with bad news to deliver has found the recession a handy crutch—it’s explained away the cancellation of cherished but expensive television shows, layoffs and restructurings planned prior to the crash, poor fashion choices and even mothers’ return to the workforce.

But it won’t be possible to hide behind the recession forever. Eventually people will have to take responsibility for their personal actions without shifting blame to economic conditions. The release of a Canadian Medical Association survey this week on an alleged link between the recession and the health of Canadians seems as good a time as any to demand greater honesty in excuses.

According to the CMA’s telephone poll, nearly a quarter of respondents said “the economic downturn has affected how they take care of their health.” An equal proportion said they had cancelled dental appointments. Twenty-two per cent claimed they were avoiding recreational activities because of the recession. A smaller number said their eating habits were worse. All this led the CMA to call the recession a “serious health hazard” at its annual meeting in Saskatoon this week.

Granted, rising unemployment rates have likely caused many Canadians to economize on non-essentials. But the thing about Canada’s health care system, for all its flaws, is that access is not tied to income levels. A temporary economic setback should have a very limited impact on health, particularly in categories examined by the CMA.

Gym memberships may no longer fit in many budgets, but walking around the block is as affordable as ever. So is healthy eating and keeping appointments. When the C.D. Howe Institute looked into the health of low-income children earlier this year, it found the strongest predictor of poor health among children was not family income, but the health and education of parents. Which suggests temporary changes in income will have little or nothing to do with the current health status of Canadians. Laziness is another matter.

More to the point, whatever time the CMA spends providing apologies for the poor health habits of Canadians is time not spent focusing on the real problems still facing Canada’s medicare system.

Canada’s biggest health hazard remains the political belief that our system must forever rely on public provision, and that private delivery is an evil to be condemned. Thankfully both outgoing CMA president Robert Ouellet, an outspoken advocate of greater competition, and incoming president Anne Doig, who has spent her entire career in the public system, appear to agree on this point. Both have argued in favour of greater emphasis on a results-based health system and against doctrinaire solutions. This sort of thinking should lead to a more flexible combination of private and public delivery based on what will work best. More focus on patient outcomes. Less reliance on silly excuses.

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