The good, the bad, and the way to better: a look at the Provincial Health Officer’s Report

On January 25th, 2019, Dr. Bonnie Henry, BC’s provincial health officer (PHO), released the report, Taking the Pulse of the Population: an update on the Health of British Columbians This report allows those of us invested and interested in public health to pause and reflect on where the journey started in 2013 and where we hope to be in 2023.

In 2013, the Ministry of Health’s Guiding Framework, Promote, Protect, Prevent: Our Health Begins Here BC’s Guiding Framework for Public Health  provided a detailed map outlining where we need to go and what targets need to be met in order to get there.  It charted 7 overarching goals for public health, including 36 health related performance measures to be achieved by 2023.

The PHO’s report weighs in on goals such creating supportive environments in order to make it easier for people to make healthy choices. 

The good news is, in some areas we haven’t veered too far off the designated route, and in fact we may even surpass projected targets in other areas.  If the downward trend continues for Mortality Due to Preventable Causes (such motor vehicle crashes, smoking-related deaths, and infant mortality), we could potentially meet the 2023 target of 120 deaths per 100 000 population by 2021.

For Physical Activity, we’re looking at the percentage of British Columbians age 12+ who are physically active or moderately active in their leisure time with the goal of reaching 70% in 2023. While, there is an overall upward trend (currently we check-in at approximately 62.5%), it’s not quite enough to get us to the target by 2023. However, recently there has been an accelerated increase in physical activity and if this short burst of a trend continues we may well achieve 70% by 2023.

One way to potentially increase physical activity, as noted in the PHO’s report, is by using active transportation (being able to walk, bike, roll, and easily take transit to where you need to go) or “human-powered transportation.” Creating connected trails and corridors for ‘all ages and all abilities’ could make it much easier for British Columbians across the province to be physically active in their leisure time and move us closer to our target of 70% by 2023.

The bad news is we still have our work cut out for us in other key areas. We need to find our way back to the course to even come close to meeting the 2023 target goals. 

Unfortunately, it comes as no surprise, and bears repeating, that in BC the largest proportion of total health care costs is directly or indirectly attributable to chronic disease. If we check in on where we’re currently at with fruit and vegetable consumption, we have dipped below where we started and are headed in the wrong direction, moving away from the 2023 target of 55% of the population eating at least 5 servings of fruits & veggies a day. (We’re currently at 40.2%). 

Unhealthy eating is one of the key behavioural risk factors that can increase one’s chances of developing a chronic disease.  Some other risk factors are physical inactivity, tobacco use, and harmful alcohol use. All of these behavioural risk factors need to be seen through a health equity lens as many British Columbians don’t get the chance to choose nutritious foods, leisure activity or can find themselves struggling with tobacco or alcohol.  

That being said, the PHO report shines a light on a comforting prospect: “in many case, the risk factors for chronic disease are responsive to prevention and thus, can be modified… through a multi-faceted approach that includes increased prevention activities, education and awareness, policy and legislation, and environmental changes [which] can prevent a great deal of chronic illness.

The report continues that, “it is estimated that a one per cent annual reduction in risk factor prevalence (smoking, excess weight, and physical inactivity) until 2036 could result in a cumulative $15 billion in direct and indirect health care costs avoided in BC.” That is a substantial amount of savings that could be re-invested in other important health areas. 

With the PHO’s report we know exactly where we’re at and what it will take to get us to our 2023 goals: collaboration, robust legislation, engaging awareness campaigns and a renewed overall focus in making the healthiest choice, the easiest choice. While it won’t be easy, it is possible and definitely worth it.

Taking the Pulse of the Population, serves as a flashlight, map and multi-purpose tool that reaffirms BCAHL’s mission to continue to advance policy and programs that help British Columbians to avoid disease and live healthier.

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