Liberals' Health Regime Is Ambitious, Vague
In its February 8 throne speech, the B.C. Liberal government announced that one of its aims is to "lead the way" when it comes to healthy living and physical fitness. Among its strategies is to focus on prevention. Although that goal might sound good on paper, the specifics behind Gordon Campbell's pre-election health kick remain to be revealed--and that concerns members of the British Columbia Health Coalition.
The coalition is a community working group that supports public health care. Its cochair, Caryn Duncan, described the health portion of the throne speech--which also touched on support services, education, the environment, and job creation--as pure propaganda.
"Throne speeches are promotional pieces; when you read it through, there's not a lot of substantial or practical information," Duncan said in a phone interview. "One thing that struck me was the emphasis on the health of individuals. We're an organization that believes strongly in prevention, in health promotion, and in pursuing healthy lifestyles. But the focus on individuals in the absence of a healthy system is shortsighted. You need support systems in place for all people and you need preventive care."
Duncan, who's also the executive director of the Vancouver Women's Health Collective, added that it's important to look at the determinants of health.
"There is a direct correlation between healthfulness and income," she said. "When it comes to reducing poverty and reducing barriers to access to quality care, the provincial government does not have a good track record."
Duncan backed up her claims by pointing to such Liberal initiatives as the increase in MSP premiums and the withdrawal of government funding for services like physiotherapy, massage therapy, and annual eye exams.
"What impact does that have on people's health? The point of view of the B.C. government on the lives of British Columbians is strikingly different from what we see on the ground," Duncan said.
According to the government's 2002 report "How Healthy Are We?", about four in 10 British Columbians are inactive and more than 40 percent are overweight.
As part of its well-being campaign, the government announced it would launch a health and fitness program called Act Now. Priorities include increasing the proportion of British Columbians who are physically active and the number who eat recommended daily servings of fruit and vegetables, each by 20 percent. At the same time, the Liberals claim they will decrease the number of people who are obese or overweight by 20 percent and cut the prevalence of tobacco use by 10 percent. However, details are scant, and the government has yet to disclose exactly how it will reach those targets.
Minister of Health Services Shirley Bond couldn't be reached by deadline.
The government might take some cues from the Ottawa-based Canadian Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. Much of the organization's work is dedicated to improving the quality and quantity of physical-education courses offered in schools, but it's also aggressively promoting the benefits of exercise, because 2005 has been declared the International Year of Sport and Physical Education by the United Nations.
Andrea Grantham, CAHPERD's director of operations and communications, told the Georgia Straight that in the 12 years she's been employed at the association, the status of physical activity has come full circle. About a decade ago, phys-ed classes started to be scaled back or taught by unqualified instructors. The result, she said, is the problem of excess weight, obesity, and inactivity that the B.C. government is now trying to address.
"We're now seeing a sedentary generation of kids who don't value and understand the importance of physical activity," Grantham said on the line from her office. "What's happening is kids are uneducated and lack the basic skills and don't have the habits to incorporate physical activity outside of school. It's great that the B.C. government is getting involved, but the fight's not over, for sure.
"We encourage parents to be positive role models," she added. "If they're active, kids have better social and concentration skills." Most schools, Grantham noted, don't provide the recommended national standard of a minimum of 150 minutes per week of physical education. And those kids will turn into adults who'll be similarly unmotivated, uninspired, or just plain lost when it comes to being active.
Taking personal responsibility for well-being also forms part of the Liberals' healthy-living strategy. To help foster such proactive attitudes, the government mentioned in the throne speech the possibility of offering "personal-health guides", which would be modelled on those currently being launched in the United Kingdom. There, citizens who want help reaching their goals--whether it be losing weight, getting more exercise, or quitting smoking--have access to a new type of medical record that they can update themselves with the input of doctors, nurses, nutritionists, and other health professionals. Also called "personal health organizers", the guides will be stored on-line. People can graph personal data like weight, alcohol intake, blood-sugar levels, and immunizations as well as their progress losing weight or stopping smoking. They will also be able to enlist the help of "health trainers" for advice and support.
According to England's National Health Service, about 4,000 people have used the Internet health logs since their launch in 2003. In its research, the NHS found that people are eager to take charge of their own health but often find it hard to get from the contemplation stage to the action phase.
"The difficulty people experience in changing to a healthier way of life is a call for action," the NHS Web site states (www .nhs.uk/). "Too often an unsuccessful attempt on our own to change deep-seated habits leads to feelings of failure, even guilt, and a frustrating lack of control over our lives....Worthy exhortation to change from well-intentioned organizations with seemingly weak connections to the realities of everyday life can become irritating reminders of these negative feelings about health. As a result, too often good intentions...are not followed through."
If the B.C. Liberal government is serious about keeping healthy, it will follow through on its pre-election promises.