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  • Queen's Institute of Healthcare Improvement

Pandemic a ‘wake-up call’ to make lasting change to Canadian Public Health

The 2021 Chief Public Health Officer of Canada’s Report on the State of Public Health in Canada highlighted the need for urgent and drastic changes to the healthcare system to ensure patients continue to receive proper care.

Echoing the words of many healthcare workers throughout the pandemic, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, declared the COVID-19 pandemic as a “wake-up call” regarding Canada’s ability to face public health emergencies.

The report focused on suggestions for improving Canada’s public health system, such as improving data-sharing, implementing pandemic surveillance tools, and maintaining continuous funding for public health.

Dr. Tam also emphasized the importance of retaining the public health workforce, as the pandemic has led to record high reports of burnout amongst public health workers throughout the country. Although one might think that lack of physical resources, such as hospital beds or diagnostic technology, would be the largest challenge to the Canadian public health system, it is growing apparent that it is a lack of human resources that will be the toughest hurdle to overcome in order to provide adequate patient care.

The need to recruit and retain the public health workforce will remain long after the pandemic ends, as there is a large segment of the Canadian population with health-care needs that need to be addressed. Health care workers are only expecting this population to grow as the pandemic continues, as more individuals are falling victim to various complications following contracting COVID-19. Additionally, less individuals are receiving diagnoses or early detection for various diseases and cancers due to the toll of the pandemic on local hospitals, leading to the cancellation of various services and elective surgeries. Thus, as the public health workforce continues to shrink, and the number of Canadians who require healthcare only grows, there is a looming public health crisis that can no longer be ignored.

Canadian Public Health Association executive director Ian Culbert emphasized the dire need to establish a federal legislation for public health, or Canadian Public Health Act, that clearly outlines the roles and responsibilities for all government levels and stakeholders. Culbert believes that such legislation would make it possible to deliver outstanding public health services to Canadians, but would require a national funding accord. Unfortunately, funding for public health tends to taper off following a crisis.

Governments often move to address other priorities following a public health emergency, scaling back public health resources when they are needed most. For decades, leaders in the public health sector have called for a fundamental change to the Canadian public health system in order to secure stable funding, but substantial change has yet to arrive. Although ideally it should not take a pandemic to realize that investments into public health now pay dividends later on, one can only hope that the COVID-19 pandemic will serve as the impetus to finally reshape the foundation of the Canadian public health system - which has been neglected for far too long.

The fundamental hardship of public health is that it seeks to prevent disease and injury from occurring, and so, as Dr. Tam explained, there is often nothing to point to to prove that it's working.

Click here to learn more about the current crisis facing the public health system in Canada, and the urgent measures needed to keep healthcare afloat.

Summary by: Claire Lipton

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