The NDP was returned to power in 1999 with a pledge to focus on improving health care, specifically pushing patients through hospitals faster to get them off gurneys lined up in hallways. The cap was off on health spending, and it now eats 44 per cent of the provincial budget. So why are Manitobans waiting in the ER hours longer than most Canadians?

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/12/2015 (2225 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Editorial

The NDP was returned to power in 1999 with a pledge to focus on improving health care, specifically pushing patients through hospitals faster to get them off gurneys lined up in hallways. The cap was off on health spending, and it now eats 44 per cent of the provincial budget. So why are Manitobans waiting in the ER hours longer than most Canadians?

The ER wait times have been the albatross around the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority’s neck. The more it tries, the bigger the promises, the deeper the disappointment. Two years ago, the WRHA pledged it would cut wait times to four hours, on average, by this year. There was no plan behind the ambitious promise and, predictably, the WRHA cried uncle before the target date passed.

Now, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, the city has the dubious distinction of having the longest ER wait times on average — 5.7 hours, compared with Canada’s 3.1 hours. Hurray, hurray.

This measure is just a symptom, of course, of malaise within the health-care system. A whole basket of measures shows Manitoba lagging Canada in wait times and the cost of health care. Manitobans have longer stays in the hospital, the cost per patient is much higher, as is per capita spending on health care, generally.

There is room to cut costs and improve health care, no doubt. This is especially true in the north, where infant mortality is highest. But the past 15 years have shown pouring cash into the system is not a fix. The Selinger government has expanded access to care in the community, to try to keep people out of the ER wards. It has expanded services connected to individuals’ well-being, by bringing physicians, nurse practitioners and programs for mental health, prenatal care and social assistance under the same roof in some clinics.

But it is time to target the factors fuelling the cost of health care and the toll of poor health. Manitobans have much higher rates of diabetes, obesity and mortality from cancer, heart disease and stroke. We die younger, as do our babies — Manitoba’s infant-mortality rate is Canada’s highest but for the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

The province cannot spend its way to fixing, through hospitals and prescriptions, what ails us. Health science is still sorting through all of what’s driving rising weight problems and chronic disease, particularly in the aboriginal population where diabetes is endemic in some communities.

But it is indisputable diet and exercise are basic to good health. Something as simple as walking, regularly, makes a difference, as does watching how much and what we put in our mouths.

Public health education should focus on getting people to dump the junk food, including processed food high in salt and fat, and to prepare meals from scratch, instead. The rising cost of groceries is something that needs to be addressed by government transfers and income supports to low-income households.

There is likely a better and more efficient way to push patients through the ER, out of the hospital wards and then home to recover. But Manitoba’s elevated rates of chronic disease and obesity will help burn through any new penny the government drops into a ravenous health-care budget.

Manitobans can get serious about preventive health care, staying or becoming healthy. Or we can continue to die earlier than most Canadians, making the province all the poorer, in every sense of the word. The smarter dime is spent on keeping people out of the hospital.