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Editorials Canada's aging population will strain the health-care system

The federal government will put up $27-billion this year through the Canada Health Transfer. By 2017, when the deal ends, the annual transfer will have grown to $36-billion.

Chad Hipolito/chad hipolito The Globe and Mail

This week, Statistics Canada is expected to reveal the demographic details of our aging country. It will spark more talk about possible changes to Old Age Security benefits, but it should also help people ponder another social program under siege: medicare.

Canadians are living longer, with more diseases. A growing number are developing multiple chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and kidney disease. Many of these are not sexy illnesses; you will never see the image of an arthritic hand on a hospital building, as you see a heart.

An estimated 16 million Canadians live with at least one chronic condition. They go from specialist to specialist and take several drugs. Some lack proper care until a medical crisis hits. Others are dubbed frequent fliers for their large number of emergency-department visits.

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Not only is their care inefficient and inconvenient, it's costly: one per cent of the population consumes about 50 per cent of health costs, due to both hospitalization and home care. They also require a high proportion of readmissions to hospital – a matter of particular concern.

A report by the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences more than a year ago suggested that patients with chronic health conditions should be able to access care with a team of clinicians who can co-ordinate those services throughout their lives.

Some institutions have acted on this. Women's College Hospital in Toronto opened a centre last summer that provides a form of one-stop shopping for patients. There, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, dieticians and other health-care providers are in the same area to treat patients with multiple medical conditions. This common-sense, low-tech health innovation has so far treated 590 patients.

Canada faces an enormous demographic shift. Some time between 2015 and 2021, there will be more people aged 65 and older than those 14 and under. Some of these seniors will be spry and healthy, while others will have numerous medical problems.

The aging demographic will be a test for Canada's health-care system. It should be seen as an opportunity for a transformation in which innovations put patients first. Unless hospital and health-care providers adapt, we will be doing a disservice to future generations.

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