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Dr. Gregory Taylor retires: Country’s top doctor gives final word to Canadians about their health

Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Gregory Taylor is pictured during a press conference in Ottawa on October 20, 2014. .
Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Gregory Taylor is pictured during a press conference in Ottawa on October 20, 2014. . THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

He steered the country through global concern over Ebola, monitored the spread of Zika virus across South America and responded to the nation’s struggle with opioid overdoses.

Dr. Gregory Taylor spent two years at the helm of Canada’s health care system as chief public health officer. He retires on Friday after a decades-long career as a family physician and public health expert.

On Thursday, the outgoing CPHO released his final report as Canada’s top doctor. It describes the state of Canadians’ health.

“My overall advice to Canadians is to know that health is more than just an absence of disease…it’s eating healthy, getting physical activity, enjoying your family. Those are things that are healthy,” he told Global News in his final days before retiring.

“Canadians have it in their own hands to live healthy lives,” he said.

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Taylor said that in his two-year tenure, his biggest challenges were Ebola, which appeared shortly after he was appointed, along with Zika and the opioid crisis, which came to a head in the past year.

READ MORE: How Canada’s top public health officer hopes to transform the country

Taylor took the job as Canada’s top doctor in 2014. He’s the second person in the role since it was created in 2004 in light of the SARS crisis.

He said the doctor inheriting his role is taking on a handful of concerns too – Taylor calls them “wicked problems.”

“They’re problems that are difficult and hard to tackle,” he said.

For starters, there are chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease and hypertension and how they’re intricately intertwined with factors such as an aging population, weight and rising obesity rates and lifestyle.

He’s worried about superbugs, too, because germs are quickly developing anti-microbial resistance and the antibiotics we have on hand aren’t as potent while drug makers aren’t inventing more options. We’re nearing a reality in which operations can’t happen or routine infections could kill people, he warned.

Taylor also worries about opioid addictions and mental health. There’s an immediate response through naloxone, to reverse symptoms of an overdose, and education but there’s a long-game that needs to be addressed too, he said.

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“That relates to the public’s fascination with mind-altering drugs…it’s not just people who are addicted and dying. It’s recreational users,” he said.

READ MORE: Canadians’ drinking habits may lead to harm, chronic disease

Taylor’s report points to a handful of statistics on Canadians’ health:

  • Canadians are living longer than ever with an average life expectancy of 82 years
  • Nine out of 10 children and youth aren’t getting enough physical activity
  • The proportion of Canadians 20 years and older with diabetes almost doubled between 2000 and 2011 — up from 6 per cent to 10 per cent
  • Just over 340,000 Canadians were diagnosed with dementia in 2011. That’s two per cent of the Canadian population aged 40 and older

“If you boil it down, Canadians enjoy good health, some of the best health in the world, but this doesn’t apply to everyone,” he said.

Taylor said he decided to isolate these findings in a standalone report – in the past, they’re typically buried behind a key issue. At the start of this year, Taylor chose to focus on advising Canadians to pay attention to how much alcohol they’re drinking, for example.

READ MORE: Saskatoon, Calgary, Winnipeg top list in national health rankings

Taylor conceded it’s “the people” he’ll miss most about the job. He got to work with academics and doctors passionate about their work, public health officials across every province and territory, and heads of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention and his Australian counterpart. He even got to advise two prime ministers.

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But he chose to retire two years into the job at age 61 – the posting is typically five years long.

“It’s a stressful job. It’s high-intensity and I’m getting a little old for that,” he told Global News.

“Both my parents died at 76 so I feel if I’m lucky I’ll have a good 10 to 15 years of good health,” he said, promising to spend his days hiking, travelling, skiing, and volunteering.

READ MORE: Canada is 6th happiest country in the world, global study finds

The job as the country’s top doctor was the culmination of his work, which started in 1985 as a family doctor in Guelph, Ont., he said. After about seven years practicing, Taylor “tripped over” public health.

He went back to school to specialize in the subject, then moved to Ottawa to work for the government.

“It’s been an amazing experience. As a family doctor you make a big difference in the lives of 200 people or so. In public health at the national level, you have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the entire country. It’s been an incredible honour and privilege,” he said.

carmen.chai@globalnews.ca

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