It’s time to view public health care as an economic asset
A version of this commentary appeared in the Calgary Herald, Huffington Post and the Winnipeg Free Press
The road to reviving Canada’s sluggish productivity maylead straight to an emergency department — or anoperating room — or an immunization clinic.Sound implausible? Only if you consider public health carefrom the tired and usual point of view — which is that it is aconsumption good, sucking ever-larger amounts of moneyout of a shrinking taxpayer pocket. Strike another commission, Canada.But if you can accept the notion that public health care, if optimized, could be an investment good yielding futurewealth as opposed to a consumption good using upcurrent wealth and resources, the road to reversing our productivity slide seems suddenly to be freshlypaved.Take a pass on the commission, Canada. Take a progressive look at public health care.Health care is a form of human capital. Considered in the broadest sense, health care encompasses publiceducation and prevention services as well as the delivery of care when illness strikes. As such, it is actuallyone of society’s critical means of keeping our population productive.The correlation between health and productivity has been illustrated in different ways. The CanadianInstitutes of Health Research estimated the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003took US$3.6 billion out of Canada’s GDP and 1% off its economic growth. Imagine the consequences —both economic and human — had SARS gone unchecked.More recently, the Fraser Institute estimated that work-time productivity losses due to long waits athospitals and to see specialists cost the Canadian economy C$1.08 billion in 2011. The cost tripled to $3.29billion when time outside of the working period was included.These examples are at the system level. Think of the value impacts, as well, at the individual level: having aworn out joint replaced or having a heart attack treated can allow people to remain productive for yearsbeyond what would have been their original ‘shelf life.’Canadians can’t afford productivity losses. We’ve had two decades of sluggish productivity growth. TheConference Board of Canada reported last year that our productivity level has fallen to 80% of the U.S. levelfrom a high of 90% in the mid-1980s.If we can agree that efficient health care is an enabler of productivity and that productivity is key to wealth,the next steps should be easy: first, view public health care as a significant driver of our economy; next,consider our expenditures in health care as a potential investment yielding future wealth; and finally, managethose investments strategically to ensure we get maximal value for our money.The latter will take much effort given the inefficiencies in public health care in Canada.