Understanding Factors that Determine Our Health

A teepee in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, in 1984. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)
A teepee in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, in 1984. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)

“The perception that health comes from the health care system is widespread. Yet the health care system accounts only for a small – albeit important – part of the overall health of the population, mainly through treatment. It’s really an illness care system,” says Dr. Trevor Hancock in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ December 18, 2017). The title of the article – “Beyond health care: the other determinants of health.”

Hancock is an internationally recognized public health physician. The Canadian Public Health Association recently recognized his outstanding contributions in the broad field of public health with the R.D. Defries Award.

Our health care system is geared towards providing acute care. Most major determinants of health lie outside the acute care system. Health care system should provide major care towards factors that really make us sick, says Hancock.

Hancock says a 2014 policy brief found the health care system to be responsible for just 10 to 20 per cent of broadly defined health outcomes. It does not take into account other factors that affect our health. For example: our behaviour, our social circumstances, physical environment that includes pollution, and genetic factors.

This is hardly a new understanding. The Canadian government’s 1974 landmark Lalonde Report suggested four health fields:

  1. Human biology
  2. Lifestyle
  3. Environment
  4. Health care

Public health care service should attempt to reduce the overall burden of disease, ensuring clean water and air, clean and reliable energy, and quality early child development experiences.

Clearly most of these factors do not lie within the jurisdiction of the Minister of Health or the health authorities, says Hancock.

We need to broaden our concept of health policy and ask ourselves, in what way is current food, housing, transport, or economic policy bad for health, and, conversely, what would a healthy housing and transport policy look like, asks Hancock.

In another article, (CMAJ November 20, 2017) titled “No quality health care without strong public health,” Hancock says public health is in the same business as the rest of the health care system: saving lives and reducing suffering. But it does so by intervening before – rather than after – the onset of disease or injury.

Hancock says the objectives of public health are three:

  1. To focus on improving health in the population as a whole rather than through one-on-one care. It has been found that local and national public health interventions were highly cost-saving.
  2. To improve the patient’s experience of care. Prevention should be seen as the first step in disease management and a key marker for quality health care.
  3. The final aim is to reduce the per-capita cost of health care. This can be approached in four main ways: reduce the burden of disease, improve self-care so fewer people seek care, improve the efficiency and effectiveness of care services, or reduce services.

We have to strike a better balance between prevention and treatment. Let us intervene before the onset of disease or injury. That will save lives and reduce suffering. I will finish with the following words of wisdom:

“Nothing that has value, real value, has no cost. Not freedom, not food, not shelter, not healthcare,” says Dean Kamen, an American inventor and businessman.

Start reading the preview of my book A Doctor's Journey for free on Amazon. Available on Kindle for $2.99!

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