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Canadians have little confidence in the ability of the health-care system to meet the needs of a burgeoning number of seniors and they are looking to government to shift their priorities and come up with a coherent plan.

That's the message that emerges from a new poll commissioned by the Canadian Medical Association.

"The anxiety Canadians have about health care in their so-called golden years is both real and well-founded," said Anna Reid, outgoing president of the CMA.

Nationwide, three in five respondents said they believed there would not be sufficient hospital beds, long-term care and home-care services to meet demand in their golden years.

However, there are significant regional differences. In Quebec, for example, 56 per cent of those polled said the health system is ready for the so-called grey tsunami, compared to 31 per cent in Atlantic Canada.

Where there is near-unanimous agreement – 93 per cent – is around the idea that governments should unite to develop a comprehensive seniors' strategy. A large number of respondents, 78 per cent, said Ottawa should play a significant role in developing the strategy, despite the federal government's stand that health is strictly a provincial matter.

"Let there be no doubt that a national strategy for seniors' health care should be a federal priority," Dr. Reid said.

She added that the poll results send a strong message that the public wants action.

The CMA, which represents Canada's 78,000 physicians, residents and medical students, has released an annual report card for 13 years, asking the public to assign letter grades to the quality of health services.

This year, 75 per cent of those polled awarded an overall grade of A or B. That figure has crept up gradually from 65 per cent back in 2001. Over that same period though, Canadians have been less and less impressed with the performance of governments overseeing the health system. This year, only 29 per cent gave Ottawa an A or B grade, and 41 per cent gave their province top marks.

In addition to taking the public pulse on the state of health care, the CMA focuses annually on a couple of hot-button issues. This year, care of seniors and end-of-life care are the focus of the group's annual meeting.

"Society is ready for this discussion. Physicians have to be ready too," said Louis Francescutti, president-elect of the CMA.

The poll was conducted by Ipsos Reid between July 17 and July 26. A total of 1,000 Canadian adults were surveyed by telephone. The results are considered accurate within 3.1 percentage points, 19 times of 20. The poll probed Canadians' concerns as they approach their retirement years:

  • 83 per cent said they were most concerned about their health;
  • 78 per cent were concerned about their ability to access acute and long-term care;
  • 77 per cent worried about being able to get home care when they need it;
  • 71 per cent fretted about their financial situation.

In fact, financial and health concerns are intertwined, with only one-third of Canadians saying they could afford home care or institutional care. The balance said they would depend on the public health system to provide nursing home, institutional and home care, even though public coverage of those services varies around the country. But, again, there are significant differences across the country: 72 per cent of Quebeckers said they are depending on the state to provide adequate care in their golden years, compared to 50 per cent of Albertans.

Asked where governments should prioritize investments for improving seniors' care, 63 per cent of respondents selected home and community care, 24 per cent chose hospital and long-term care, and 12 per cent emphasized end-of-life care. It costs about $55 a day to provide home care for a senior with a chronic health condition, compared to $126 in a long-term care facility and $842 in hospital.

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