Costly Health Care ‘Average’

Commentary, Frontier Centre, Healthcare, Media Appearances, Role of Government

Alberta spends more than any other province on health care, but has a mediocre medical system burdened by long wait times for treatment and a shortage of physicians, according to a new study.

The Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a Winnipeg-based think-tank, released a report Tuesday that ranks Alberta’s health system fifth among provinces, citing problems such as poor access to new medications and high infant mortality rates.

Ontario’s health system received the best ranking in the study, followed by British Columbia and Nova Scotia. The study authors concluded the best health systems aren’t necessarily the most expensive, noting the top three performers were below-average spenders.

Alberta spends about $3,300 per person annually on health care, the highest per capita health tab in Canada, according to the report.

“There isn’t a strong relationship between spending and quality,” said Rebecca Walberg, director of health policy at the Frontier Centre.

“Alberta spends a great deal for average health care.”

The report graded all provincial health systems on 26 measures like five-year cancer survival rates and a patient’s ability to access same-day medical care for minor problems.

Ontario grabbed first place in the study, winning praise for its primary care system, health outcomes and strong services such as immunization programs and drug funding.

Manitoba, Quebec, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland ranked at the bottom of the study.

The study authors rated Alberta in the middle of the pack, giving it poor marks for its family doctor shortage, access to same-day medical care and new drug funding. The province scored well for providing access to home care, quick access to diagnostic imaging as well as good heart attack survival rates.

Walberg said the results suggest provinces like Alberta are spending enough money on health care and should consider changing the way they pay for the system. For instance, she argues the province should scrap the current system where hospitals receive a yearly budget in favour of an incentive-based system where facilities are paid for the services they provide.

But public health-care advocates said governments should improve the system by training more health professionals and building hospitals, not changing funding models.

“(The Frontier Centre’s) leap to a consumer based system for financing hospitals is code word for privatization,” said Dave Eggen, executive director of Friends of Medicare. “If you have a high infant mortality rate, you’re not going to be able to shop or choose your way out of that.”

At least one independent observer said a complex set of factors such as a population’s lifestyle and income levels will have more influence on its overall health than spending.

“Some countries spend enormous amounts on health care, like the U.S., and their health indicators are almost always worse than Canada’s,” said Dr. Tom Noseworthy, a University of Calgary health policy expert.