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Nearly half of all Canadians facing a major health crisis, such as cancer or a stroke, are struggling financially as a result, according to the latest research from Sun Life Financial.

The company's annual health index found that 40 per cent of those surveyed reported feeling financially strapped after a serious health issue or diagnosis, while 53 per cent of 45- to 54-year-olds said they`d been hit hard by unforeseen health-care costs.

While most Canadians realize a serious health event could impact their personal finances, only 13 per cent said they had money set aside for such an eventuality.

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"People don't necessarily see themselves as being at risk for a major health event, it's not something you want to think about," Kevin Dougherty, president of Sun Life Financial Canada, said in an interview.

"As well, people maybe have a feeling that the health-care system is going to look after them ... (but) a lot of the care that you need at home and in recovery is not necessarily covered by the public system."

The report showed that some Canadians underestimate out-of-pocket health costs, especially when it comes to prescription drugs.

Even though some drug costs are covered under company health plans, most people still have to pay a percentage themselves. Yet only 54 per cent of respondents said they expected to pay any amount of money directly for their prescriptions.

The survey showed that in the past 12 months, Canadians spent an average of $1,354 on medical or health-care products and additional services.

One-fifth of those surveyed had no group insurance, personal insurance or health expense savings — and more than 81 per cent hadn't put any money aside for health-care emergencies.

Sun Life said that among those who did experience a health crisis, 22 per cent turned to credit cards or personal lines of credit, another 22 per cent tapped into personal savings, 12 per cent borrowed from a loved one and five per cent had to either remortgage or sell their home.

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Dougherty said such choices only add to people's stress levels as they battle a major illness.

"You've got this immediate stress that's playing out for the person, but once they've gotten through to the other side they've really derailed their retirement plans," Dougherty said.

Overall, the poll found Canadians were feeling good about their physical and emotional health.

The index reached a record high of 65.9 this year, up marginally from last year, and 4.7 per cent higher than the low recorded in 2011.

The Sun Life Canadian Health Index was based on the findings of an Ipsos Reid poll conducted May 10-24, with a sample of 2,400 Canadians aged 18 to 80 who were interviewed online.

The health issues discussed in the survey included heart attack, stroke, cancer, coronary bypass, chronic diseases, degenerative disorders, terminal illnesses and serious accidents, with 28 per cent of Canadians saying they had experienced a serious health event or an accident in their lifetime.

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The polling industry's professional body, the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association, says online surveys cannot be assigned a margin of error because they do not randomly sample the population.

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