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Roy Romanow, former Saskatchewan premier and former head of the Commission on the Future of Health Care in Canada. File photo. SUNMEDIA

By Roy Romanow – Published in the Edmonton Journal

Albertans and all Canadians cherish medicare. It’s part of our identity. For our health care system to be effective and sustainable, governments must adapt to the changing needs of the country.

The change we need today is to place a far greater emphasis on prevention and wellness. Here are five reasons I am encouraging provinces to show ambitious leadership on prevention.

Chronic disease is on the rise

Rising incidents of chronic illness are a big driver of escalating health care budgets across Canada. Chronic disease, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, lung disease and heart failure are on the rise. Injuries and mental illness also contribute to this epidemic. These illnesses not only hurt families but place an increasing burden on health care.

In 2014, a report by the Alberta auditor general warned about 25 per cent of Albertans will develop diabetes and more than 90 per cent will have high blood pressure by age 80.

Today, according to the Alberta Diabetes Foundation, Type 2 diabetes is an epidemic with one million Albertans either diabetic or pre-diabetic. The cost of diabetes care has been called “one of the greatest public health and health system challenges of the 21st century.”

We need to ambitiously bend the rates of those contracting chronic disease.

Prevention is effective

Chronic disease is largely preventable and preventive measures are proven effective. Rising flu shot rates are one example. Preventing teen smoking is an even better one. By 2014, fewer than eight per cent of Canadian teens were smoking occasionally or daily. This represents a 171-per-cent rate of decline from the 21 per cent of teens who were smokers in 1994. The change was even more pronounced for teenage girls — just seven per cent reported they smoked in 2014.

Unhealthy behaviours are the largest cause of chronic disease; they include tobacco use, poor diet, physical inactivity, excessive alcohol consumption, risky driving and childhood trauma. Social risk factors include poverty, homelessness, low education, discrimination and other social inequities.

The burden of chronic disease on health care is also rising because, while people’s life expectancy is increasing, their years in good health are not. This often lengthens the time chronic diseases must be treated.

Prevention helps all Albertans, especially the least advantaged

Albertans who would benefit most from prevention are the vulnerable and disadvantaged as they are most likely to get sick. Effective prevention strategies can reduce health inequities.

More than two-thirds of Canadians with household incomes over $80,000 per year report very good or excellent health while well under half of Canadians in households with annual incomes below $40,000 feel as healthy.

Action now strengthens medicare for generations to come

Prevention will help Alberta bend the rising costs of health-care delivery today and ensure its sustainability for future generations.

The creation of medicare was far from easy and it was at the provincial level —with pioneers like Saskatchewan premier Tommy Douglas — that led the way.

Tommy began ushering in medicare for Saskatchewan in 1944 prudent step by prudent step. It wasn’t until the early 1960s when Phase 1 of the vision was finally complete. The second phase — prevention — has yet to be fully realized.

Alberta can be a national leader

Wellness Alberta proposes the creation of a sustainable wellness foundation to help prevent chronic disease and injury. If properly structured and financed, this foundation could have a profound impact on Alberta’s quality of life, economy and health care system. The foundation would help create a culture of wellness to enrich the lives of many Albertans for generations to come.

To take the next logical step in health care, now is the time Alberta can show national leadership.

Imagine an Alberta with less chronic disease, fewer kids with Type 2 diabetes, less heart failure, less depression, fewer seniors with high blood pressure.

This will not only protect and entrench medicare but make the lives of families better today and in the future.

Roy Romanow is the former Premier of Saskatchewan and the former Commissioner of the Royal Commission on the Future of Health Care in Canada

© Edmonton Journal

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