Health Cover

The Maclean's health Report

An exclusive ranking shows how 16 cities stack up in health services

Robert Marshall June 7 1999
Health Cover

The Maclean's health Report

An exclusive ranking shows how 16 cities stack up in health services

Robert Marshall June 7 1999

The Maclean's health Report

Health Cover

An exclusive ranking shows how 16 cities stack up in health services

Robert Marshall

I think it is obvious that when you’re spending $80 billion a year as Canadians do on health care, there’s a need to know more about what we’re getting for our money.

—Health Minister Allan Rock, Feb. 3, 1999

Two weeks after Rock’s statement, Ottawa matched the rhetoric with real money in the socalled health-care budget. While it increased cash transfers to the provinces to fund health care, it also committed $1.4 billion to its own direct investment in health. Of that, $350 million is earmarked over the next three years to a data-gathering project

designed to improve health service—and to make its operations more visible to the public. But even as that key program gets under way, huge strides are being made elsewhere in the collection of healthcare information that truly matters to Canadians. Until this year, the only publicly available comparisons using national data have been at the provinceto-province level. Now, for the first time, the Maclean’s Health Report contains comparative data at the community level, producing an unprecedented ranking of health services in 16 major urban centres from Victoria to St. John’s, Nfld.

The results clearly demonstrate that excellence

respects no boundaries. Topping the list is Edmonton, followed closely by Toronto, Halifax and Quebec City. The ranked cities showed hugely varying results on many of the 13 individual indicators forming the basis of the overall ranking, such as numbers of physicians and specialists, coronary bypass and hip replacement surgeries and hospital patients admitted for conditions that could have been treated elsewhere. But the positives and negatives evened out considerably in the final grading: the marks range from Edmonton’s top score of 89 per cent to Sudbury’s l6th-place showing of 79 per cent. “It should come as no surprise that health-care service in all of Canada’s cities gets a good grade,” says Dr. John Millar, vicepresident of the Canadian Institute for Health Information, Macleans partner in preparing the Health Report. “But those communities can now use the results, especially their poorer showings on individual indicators, to look at how they might do some things better.”

The absence of any clear failure is a reassuring reminder that, despite its notorious shortcomings, the Canadian health

system in most respects ranks among the finest on the planet. Nonetheless, headlines and newscasts scream daily about long, occasionally fatal, waits for critical treatments. Dangerously overcrowded emergency departments. Sadly inadequate home-care facilities. Seriously overworked and underpaid nurses. Alarming disparities in care between urban and rural areas. Frankly appalling health services in many native communities. And the alarms keep sounding, prompting Canadians to wonder what is going right.

Plenty, as it turns out. Even as health ministries across the land closed wards and entire hospitals over the past five to 10 years, taking beds out of the system, the dire consequences foreseen by vocal critics simply did not happen. Serious problems erupted from time to time, rivetting the attention of the communities where they happened. “But for one reason or another,” says Millar, “the health of the population has continued to get better.”

Still, could $80 billion be spent more effectively? Are all Canadians getting the same high standard of care? Axe the

practitioners well enough trained?

Where is the medical and surgical excellence in Canada? Who does the best coronary bypass surgery, and who does the best job of treating cancer? Why do overcrowding crises persist in hospital emergency departments? Those are all valid questions. Unfortunately, there are no thorough answers to any of them, not even a hint of an answer to some.

The data used to produce this initial ranking, however, cover enough critical facets to give regional health authorities reason to reassess some of their practices. For the top-ranking community, Edmonton, the ranking is a sign that it is “on the right track” (page 28). In the No. 2 city, Toronto, the numbers are seen as a tool to improve performance (page 29). And in fact, the information system that produced those indicators is already one of the best in the world, says Richard Alvarez, president of CIHI, the independent agency responsible for managing and circulating health-system data (page 21). “But as more and more treatments are moved out of the traditional hospital setting into clinics, home care, day surgery and other procedures,” he adds, “we find we just don’t have good data.” Consequendy, a prime focus at CIHI is on developing means to collect material from those sources. “How efficiendy was a procedure done? How effectively? How long did the patient wait?” asks Alvarez. “These are the questions we have to be able to answer.”

As those initiatives get under way, CIHI has gained agreement from communities across the country as to which indicators from already available data can be used as valid, comparable measurements of service delivery—the basis of the Macleans ranking. Millar, who spearheaded CIHI’s involvement in the Health Report, sees that kind of progress as a fundamental part of the organization’s mandate. “At the heart of our basic philosophy is the regular need to report directly to the public,” he says. “We are striving to fill the gaps between credible sources of information, not on behalf of any government, but on behalf of the people.”

A year ago, Macleans joined the widening campaign for more openness and accountability in such a vital, yet surprisingly secretive, facet of Canadians’ lives. The inaugural Health Report of June 15, 1998, showed where each province stood on a multitude of health factors, including overall spending, availability of hospital beds and high-tech equipment, and status of its residents’ health (generally better in the West compared with the East). This year, the ranking goes a significant step further to look at service delivery at the community level in 16 cities representing a cross-section of Canada's major urban centres.

The people who work daily with the data gap believe the public and political understanding of what makes people healthy is changing for the better. Sophisticated information is available from hospitals not only because they are a handy medium for collecting data, but also because of the traditional view that effectiveness depends on institutional and technical superiority—more equipment, more beds, better surgical expertise. “Now, there is a growing understanding that the system has to capture what happens outside the hospital or doctor’s office,” says Jennifer Zelmer, CIHI’s director of analysis and special studies. Canada, she adds, is making as much progress in that respect as any other country.

Another encouraging development is the vast improvement recendy in the computers and transmission facilities required to gather and sort data from so-far untapped sources of critical health-care information. That is especially important as hospitals play a decreasing role in the overall health-care pic-

Canadians show no signs of relenting in their criticism of perceived faults in the health care they receive

ture. Community-care agencies, drugs and non-hospital mental health treatments, for instance, have become much more important factors in recent years—yet all remain virtually unmeasured. Even one element of the traditional system—the physicians office—has remained beyond the data gatherers’ reach until now. In Canada, 25 per cent of the health budget goes to physicians’ services. But the paper records they keep in each office simply cannot be captured nationally. Now, physicians, armed with computers and data-management software, have joined numerous pilot projects across the country aimed at making their records available for comparative purposes.

Across the country, Canadians are showing no signs of

letting up in their criticism of perceived faults in the health care they receive. But better funding is not the answer. “If we just want to keep pouring more money into the health sector, we can do that,” says Alan Nymark, federal associate deputy minister of health. “But the public doesn’t want that.” More money is being diverted to information management to cope with the underlying problem, the lack of reliable evidence to be used to improve the system. “It is often estimated,” notes CIHI’s Millar, “that as much as 40 per cent of health-care funding is used in inappropriate or unnecessary ways.” In that case, constant monitoring and reporting can only help to improve the system.