Low health-care capacity cost Canada economically amid pandemic: report

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Canada’s health-care capacity ranks among the worst of its peers and is a factor in economic losses during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a CIBC report.

The report, titled “Low hospital capacity in Canada: A continued economic risk as Covid becomes endemic,” highlights that Canada has one of the worst health-care capacities among developed countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

According to the Global Health Security Index, Canada ranks 41st out of 137 when it comes to capacity.

Canada’s capacity was already being strained prior to the pandemic in 2019 — and has caused Canada to implement more and stricter restrictions than other countries, resulting in less economic activity, according to the report.

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COVID-19-related hospitalization per one million of the population in the U.S. and U.K. were four and five times higher than in Canada, respectively, but our system was still pushed to its limits during the second wave of COVID-19 in the fall of 2020, the report said.

“Simply put, we reached capacity at levels that many other countries consider to be acceptable,” the report states.

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“If we reach capacity faster than any other countries, that means that the trigger or the threshold to ignite [COVID-19] policies is much lower,” said Benjamin Tal, deputy chief economist at CIBC and a co-author of the report. “This has major economic implications.”

Tal sees the pandemic as a “wake-up call” for Canada to invest in its health-care capacity to better handle COVID-19 as an endemic.

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“We have to increase capacity, we have to make it a priority,” he said.

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Canadian premiers have requested at least $28 billion in extra funding from the federal government, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said he wouldn’t comment on extra funding until after the pandemic has ended.

Ontario, though, plans to spend almost all of its increases to health-care funding on new hospitals over the next 10 years, according to the report.

‘Thoughtful’ changes needed

Justin Hall, deputy chief of Sunnybrook Hospital’s Emergency Department in Toronto, agreed that capacity was definitely stretched to its limits even before the pandemic and that the worst may still be ahead given the great backlog of surgeries that hospitals will soon have to contend with, as well as a shortage of staff.

He said there has been an exodus of nurses during the pandemic due to the demands of the job.

“Our system right now is strained from a capacity perspective of humans,” Hall said.

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However, Hall doesn’t think that money should just be thrown at the system, but that improvements have to be “thoughtful.”

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“Money is a short-term solution to this, but I actually don’t think it’s the only thing that’s needed,” he said. “We really need a longer-term plan for how we’re going to address capacity on a long-term basis, not simply for the next year or two.”

That means taking a close look at hospitals’ needs a decade down the line and a significant investment in talent.

Hall also believes that there can be better coordination among provinces and different levels of government to “share lessons” instead of reinventing the wheel.

“We really have 14 different health systems that are operating in this country at various levels,” he said.

One challenge, though, is how geographically spread out the country is, which makes sharing resources or reaching northern communities difficult, but Hall said one silver lining of the pandemic is the rise of virtual care.

“Virtual care without a doubt is here to stay,” he said. “It’s very much an important part of how we’re going to address some of the capacity concerns as well.”

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