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It’s time Canada recognizes the importance of self-care
Created on 9/9/2022 10:32:40 AM

Written by Michael Graydon, CEO of Food, Health & Consumer Products of Canada
Published on May 23, 2022

Having a national self-care strategy is an effective, no- to low-cost complement to investments in the publicly funded health-care system.

The fact that Canada’s health-care system is being strained nearly to the breaking point has been noted so often in recent years, it has become almost cliché. Canada’s universal health-care system is a key pillar of our economy and our identity as Canadians. However, its vulnerability has never been clearer than in the months since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Cracks in the system that were apparent before 2020 have widened and deepened, sparking much-needed discussion on how we can make our health-care system more resilient.

Like any complex problem, repairing health care in Canada will require solutions in many areas, spanning from primary care to long-term care, and from public health policy to fiscal and taxation policy. But one of those solutions should be for Canada to embrace a strategy to support Canadians to take a bigger role in managing their health—a self-care strategy for Canada.

The term “self-care” can conjure images of home facials and herbal teas but is really so much broader than that. Self-care encompasses everything from making healthy lifestyle choices to treating minor health ailments, managing—or better yet—reducing the risk of developing chronic diseases, and more. Having a national self-care strategy is an effective, no- to low-cost complement to investments in the publicly funded health-care system. Self-care literally lets people take better care of themselves.

In 2020, for the first time ever, it was announced that Canadians’ life expectancy is declining and chronic disease, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, is growing in prevalence at a staggering rate. The most effective ways of reducing that burden lie in personal behaviours that are part of self-care—healthy eating, physical activity, stress management, use of self-care products (such as non-prescription drugs or natural health products) and services, etc. Unless we empower Canadians to play a more active role in managing their own health, we face a tsunami of costly and debilitating chronic diseases that could cripple our health-care system.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we quickly learned that our health-care system cannot stretch to accommodate some burdens, and governments and health experts were compelled to urge Canadians to care for themselves at home wherever possible. While no one wants to deny Canadians who need medical attention access to that resource, recent experience has shown that we all do better when Canadians have the tools they need to care for themselves so that capacity in the health-care system is preserved for those who really need it.

Yet, despite a growing acknowledgment that supporting Canadians in playing a larger role in managing their health is critical to the long-term sustainability of our health and health-care system, Canada makes only minimal explicit acknowledgment at the federal level of the importance of self-care or the need for a comprehensive strategy to guide governments in helping Canadians practice it safely and effectively.

Other governments, both here and abroad, have acknowledged this. The World Health Organization and the Global Self-Care Federation are supporting countries around the world to advance self-care strategies to support the health of their citizens. The Quebec government officially recognized the important role self-care can play in our health-care system in its health plan unveiled in its 2022 budget. This plan and its commitment to providing citizens with self-care tools can be a template for other jurisdictions in Canada to embrace.

An overwhelming majority of Canadians (84 per cent) welcome initiatives that would help them take better care of themselves and their loved ones to reduce unnecessary trips to hospitals, clinics, or family doctors. Maybe that’s because they know that the benefits to Canadians could be significant. If just the two per cent of Canadians with colds, headaches, or heartburn who seek professional care despite mild to moderate symptoms shifted to self-care, we could eliminate more than three million unneeded doctor visits annually and free up sufficient physician resources to allow an additional 500,000 Canadians access to a family doctor.

But how can we achieve the benefits of self-care? Quite simply, actually. By embracing a self-care strategy for Canada that that optimizes health literacy, supports healthy living, and facilitates the optimal use of self-care products.

The objectives of self-care are only possible when we increase Canadians’ health literacy—the ability to obtain, read, understand, and use health information to make appropriate health decisions and follow instructions for treatment. Health literacy is the key to promoting good health.

Access to self-care products like over-the-counter medications is also key. By some estimates, we could generate savings of more than a billion dollars per year by giving over the counter status to many commonly used medications. Half of that would accrue to provincial and federal governments.

We have an opportunity to reconceive individuals as a resource in our health-care system instead of just users of it. As we redesign health care in Canada, let’s make self-care an integral part of it.

This op-ed was originally published in the May 23, 2022, edition of the The Hill Times