Health will always be a top priority for the government of British Columbia, and we’ve made significant investments in research, disease prevention and treatment. These investments have paid off in a number of ways, including better health, greater innovation and long-term cost savings.
These are important things to point out. While I believe there will always be room for improvement – and there are limited resources to work with – we sometimes need to do a better job of touting our successes. And in certain areas, B.C.’s health care system has enjoyed some dramatic success.
Let’s start with a recent headline. On December 2, B.C.’s provincial health officer, Dr. Perry Kendall, released his report on women’s health in British Columbia. He found that women in B.C. are among the healthiest in the country. Since the last such report in 1995, the majority of directly comparable indicators have improved: advances in life and health expectancy, lower teen pregnancy rates, increased access to preventive clinical services, income and representation in positions of influence – the latter two having a direct and obvious relationship with overall health.
Of course, the report also highlights areas where improvements still need to be made. Rates of chronic diseases, such as diabetes, asthma and hypertension, have been rising, and prevalence of depression and anxiety has increased since 1995, along with rates of sexually transmitted infections and Caesarean sections. But the trends are pointing in the right direction.
Another area B.C. has been an example is helping citizens who wish to quit smoking. In May, Premier Clark announced that nicotine replacement therapies will be available to all British Columbian smokers at no cost. Smoking cessation prescription drugs will be covered under PharmaCare.
British Columbians can also call for help quitting – literally – by dialing 8-1-1. Almost 34,000 smokers have called and registered with HealthLink BC since September 30, 2011, which is fantastic.
These are crucial programs. There’s an obvious link between smoking and cancer rates. If we can help those 34,000 smokers who called, that will almost certainly translate into fewer incidents of cancer, significantly less financial burden on the provincial health care system – and fewer families who have to deal with the pain and suffering of a loved one.
Another disease B.C. has had success combating is Congestive Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD. This is important, because the burden of COPD on the health care system is alarmingly high: it has the greatest increase in death rates among the six leading causes of death, and has the highest rate of hospital admissions among chronic diseases.
In response, the Ministry of Health and BC Medical Association jointly created an incentive for the development of a COPD Action Plan. This assists patients in managing their COPD exacerbations. In 2010/11, 2,228 family physicians provided this care to 37,163 patients.
These are all great stories, and well worth celebrating. But when it comes to national and even international recognition, our investments in HIV research, treatment and prevention are arguably unparalleled. There’s a lot of credit to go around, but a large amount is due to research conducted at the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS (BC-CfE), and Provincial support for Seek and Treat to Optimally Prevent HIV/AIDS (STOP HIV).
The BC-CfE has long been a leader in HIV research; it played a key role in the discovery of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), the landmark drug cocktail adopted in Canada and around the world. HAART treatment reduces the level of HIV in blood and other biological fluids to undetectable levels – which, amazingly, decreases the likelihood of HIV transmission by more than 90 per cent.
How successful have these been? There are at least 12,000 HIV-positive people in B.C., and by most estimates approximately 2,500 of them remain undiagnosed. But B.C. is the only provincial jurisdiction showing a steady decline in the number of AIDS deaths, AIDS cases, and new HIV diagnoses.
This is vital work. A diagnosis of HIV is stressful and challenging for individuals, and can have a big impact on family and friends – and the health care system. Each HIV case costs approximately $500,000 just for medication. Fewer HIV and AIDS cases reduces the impact on individuals, friends and family, while translating into more infections prevented and opportunities to reallocate healthcare resources to other high priority areas.
It’s an impressive record of accomplishment, one I hope we continue to build upon. There will always be disagreements over where to spend limited dollars, and areas to improve. But we should be just as eager to acknowledge areas where we’ve had success. Hopefully, other jurisdictions will continue to follow our example – and help us in return by creating their own innovative and successful programs we can learn from.
Norm Letnick is the MLA for Kelowna-Lake Country and The Chair of the Select Standing Committee on Health for British Columbia