Studying rural health care to improve delivery and services for Northerners and rural Canadians

Bob Nault MP Weekly Column

KENORA – In last week’s column I spoke about my Private Members Motion, M-226, regarding Health care delivery in rural Canada. On June 5, I was pleased to have the opportunity to present and debate my motion in the House of Commons. Now that the motion has been presented, I would like to take this opportunity to highlight what it means for Northerners and rural Canadians.

It’s entrenched in law that all Canadians have equal access to health care and health care services, regardless of where they live. Largely, Northerners and Canadians are proud of their publicly funded healthcare system. However, we do recognize that disparities exist within the system, particularly in rural Canada.

A 2016 Statistics Canada census data indicates Canada’s population was just over 35 million, of which 16.8% of the population live in rural and remote areas of Canada. In a 2006 report by the Canadian Institute for Health Information entitled: How Healthy Are Rural Canadians, found that rural Canadians have higher death rates, higher infant mortality rates, and shorter life expectancies than their urban counterparts. 

The 2006, the Canadian Institute for Health Information report also found that populations living in rural areas have a shorter average life expectancy by almost 3 years for men and significantly higher smoking rates, compared to  urban areas.  Dying from diseases such as heart disease and heart attacks, as well as respiratory diseases like influenza and pneumonia, were also significantly higher in rural versus large urban areas. In addition, cervical cancer among women was higher, and they were more likely to suffer from asthma and diabetes.

There is a difference in the levels of services that are available to remote and rural communities across Canada, due in part, to the fact that they often lack the population base to warrant the construction of extensive health infrastructure. Furthermore, rural and remote communities face challenges in recruiting and retaining health care professionals.

Jurisdictional issues pose one of the largest road blocks to providing quality healthcare in the North. While this is especially true for those living on-reserve, these concerns are riddled throughout the regional healthcare system. Provinces and territories are responsible for programs that deliver health services, quite often through local health authorities. The federal government’s role is to transfer funding to the provinces, and to ensure that criteria set out in the Canada Health Act is adhered to.

It doesn’t take long to understand the concerns surrounding healthcare in the North. What I do know is that there is no cookie cutter answer. The bottom line is what works for one community may not work for another. Our greatest resource is those who live and work within the system every day, as they have the most intimate and in-depth knowledge of the problems and possess the insight necessary to propose realistic solutions. 

Because there is no formal requirement or process for measuring health disparities in Canada, my motion asks that rural health care be studied by the Health Committee to first, understand the gaps that exist in rural health care delivery, and to look for new ways to address these issues.  This area needs to be studied because current evaluations of the health status of rural Canadians are very limited.

My motion also asks that Standing Committee on Health undertake this study to determine some of the factors which contribute to the significant disparities in the health outcomes of rural Canadians, compared to those in urban centres. I am confident that this study will provide recommendations on strategies, including the use of modern and rapidly improving communications technologies to improve health care delivery in rural areas, and call on the federal government to work with the provinces, territories, and relevant stakeholders to further address and improve health care delivery.

This type of study has never been undertaken in Canada, so I look forward to continuing to debate M-226 in the next  sitting of Parliament. By studying health care in the North, and throughout rural Canada, we can come up with solutions that work to improve the everyday lives of Canadians. By taking these first steps, I believe we can make substantial progress to transform the region’s health care system through a non-partisan approach.

No matter what political party you support and no matter if you are rich or poor, young or old, or if your live in a rural or urban setting, Canada’s public health care system must provide equal accessible care to all. It is also not and cannot be a partisan issue – it is truly a Canadian issue, and Canadians must come first.