Year Ahead

The Year Ahead: Health in 2024

Governments will shell out more cash for struggling health systems as private care providers make new inroads. Technological breakthroughs will create new treatments. And psychedelics will find a cannabis-like fast track to the mainstream.

(Illustration by Anna Minzhulina)

1. Psychedelic therapies will ramp up

Psychedelics continue to march out of the darkness and into the zeitgeist. The federal government spent $3 million last year studying the benefits of psilocybin therapy for addiction and depression. Alberta now allows medicinal use of psychedelics. Last November, a Senate subcommittee urged the government to study them as a treatment for PTSD in veterans. Clinics that can legally administer psilocybin therapy are steadily sprouting across the country. And then there are the quasi-legal mushroom dispensaries, like Ontario-based chains Shroomyz and FunGuyz, that are multiplying in our cities, just as cannabis stores did prior to legalization. As murmurs grow that the FDA is considering legalizing MDMA and psilocybin in the U.S., we should prepare to see these substances more in therapeutic settings.

2. Subsidized dental care is coming

Visits to the dentist are about to become a little less dreadful—for parents, at least. The federal government is now rolling out the first phase of a $13-billion project to help low-income, uninsured Canadian families pay for dental procedures. Families who have no private insurance and earn less than $90,000 will be eligible for subsidies for routine treatments like cleanings (which typically cost up to $250), and emergency procedures like root canals (which can go for north of $1,000). The program is just the first phase of a larger plan that will expand to include more Canadians in 2025.

3. People with mental illnesses will be eligible for maid

In March, Canada will grant medical assistance in dying, or MAID, to people whose only underlying condition is a mental disorder. Eligible conditions will include depression and other psychiatric disorders, in cases where multiple treatment options have been ineffective. The eligibility was originally scheduled to roll out last year, but the Liberals delayed it to allow for further consultation. The idea was to buy more time for medical practitioners—and society at large—to digest it and develop best practices. But many experts say we’re still not ready, and the public is split. According to polls, 61 per cent of Canadians support the current incarnation of MAID, but a slim majority, 51 per cent, oppose broadening it.

4. Ozempic will become more popular—and even harder to find

From the moment Elon Musk started X-ing about it, it sounded too good to be true: an ostensibly safe miracle drug that quickly melts away the pounds. Ozempic was designed to treat type 2 diabetes, but has become famous for its fat-burning properties. The medication requires continuous use, however, which means the thousands of Canadians who started taking it in the past year will continue doing so. That will exacerbate the ongoing shortage, which has left patients who take Ozempic to treat diabetes struggling to find it. Help is now on the way: Health Canada recently approved the diabetes drug Mounjaro, while a third, Wegovy, could become available soon. But doctors warn that none of these should be used for cosmetic weight loss, no matter what you read on social media: rare but serious side effects include pancreatitis, stomach paralysis and, potentially, thyroid cancer.

5. Drone deliveries will speed up hospital care

Canadian hospital networks will follow the leads of India, Rwanda and the United States and begin shuttling medical samples by drone in 2024. The goal is to speed up turnaround times for lab results, which have been lagging since the pandemic. Already, two hospitals in Ontario’s Halton region are testing a drone system that transports blood samples and urine cultures back and forth, all while bypassing Toronto-area traffic. Expect more hospitals to try the same and, eventually, use drones to deliver supplies to rural and First Nations communities.

6. Provinces will sign federal health deals

Enough finger pointing: in 2024, provinces will tap into the Trudeau government’s massive $196-billion health accord, designed to bolster a system hamstrung by staffing shortages, overflowing emergency rooms and a raging opioid crisis. All provinces except Quebec have agreed to the accord in principle. B.C. has already signed a deal and plans to use the money to recruit and retain new talent, develop more acute-care sites and open mental health centres. Ontario and all four Atlantic provinces will likely follow suit in 2024; they’ll use the money to target priority areas such as primary care, mental health care and digital record-keeping.

7. Private care will proliferate

Private clinics—independently owned establishments where patients pay to receive treatments otherwise available in the public system—will become more common in 2024. That means that those who can pay for it will fast-track more procedures at a time where nearly a quarter of Canadians say the burdened public system prevents them from receiving care. Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario have already funnelled public funding to private clinics that offer medical imaging and surgeries, arguing that it will reduce wait times. Clinics charging member fees are now a growing phenomenon nationwide. In Nova Scotia, a subscription-based clinic opened last February. Later in 2023, clinics in B.C. and Alberta came under fire for similar practices before backtracking on them—demonstrating the shaky legal ground these enterprises occupy. Still, more are likely on the way this year.

8. Cancer patients will get personalized treatment

In 2024, more cancer patients will have access to genomic testing, an advanced therapy that allows doctors to more accurately target cancer cells. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research earmarked $15 million last October to create a Pan-Canadian Genome Library, which will help researchers and health professionals find and treat diseases more effectively. Meanwhile, BC Cancer’s personalized onco-genomics program, the first in Canada, uses the therapy to analyze patients’ genomes and suggest the most effective medication for their tumours. The technology has been available in the U.S. for several years, and the World Health Organization calls it some of the most groundbreaking cancer care happening today. Developing it at home makes it free for Canadians—and marks a huge milestone for the field of precision medicine.

9. Hospital staffing will hit new lows

Last year, 1.3 million Canadians left emergency departments without being seen, in large part thanks to staff attrition that’s blown up wait times. The Ontario Council of Hospital Unions estimates that its province’s system will be short-staffed by 60,000 employees over the next four years, and some communities now rely on just one family doctor for thousands of patients. Provinces will try to fill their gaps in innovative ways: Nova Scotia will continue fast-tracking foreign nurses, whereas Ontario’s Practice Ready program will license 50 internationally trained physicians. Ontario estimates that its staff shortages will improve somewhat by 2026. But by then we’ll face another problem: an aging population. In two years, one Canadian in five will be at least 65, putting more demand on health systems.

10. New RNA medicines are coming

This year, McGill University will spearhead a major effort to develop RNA medicines: drugs that use information from a patient’s own genome to make or alter proteins to cure disease. As with mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, whose prototypes took barely 10 weeks to develop, these medications are quick and cheap to produce. The McGill project, called D2R, will provide new treatment options for viruses like COVID, as well as diabetes and cancer. It will also have therapeutic potential for rare genetic disorders. The project is worth more than $350 million and is backed by the federal government and several Fortune 500 companies.

This article is part of the Year Ahead 2024, which is Maclean’s annual look at everything that’s coming your way next year. You can buy the print version right here.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.
  • By signing up, you agree to our terms of use and privacy policy. You may unsubscribe at any time.