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CMA town hall: “Right here we have Third World life expectancy”

The yawning gap between rich and poor and its profound impact on people’s health was the focus of a lively CMA town hall discussion in Hamilton March 6.

“Right here in Hamilton we have Third World life expectancy,” CMA President Anna Reid told the meeting, which attracted more than 200 people.

She was referring to a finding in a recent “code red” series of articles published by the Hamilton Spectator, which determined that the gap in life expectancy between rich and poor areas within the city is as high as 21 years.

If the city’s most disadvantaged areas were considered a country, said Reid, they “would rank 165th in the world for life expectancy, alongside Nepal and below Mongolia and Turkmenistan.”

The Hamilton town hall, held in partnership with Maclean’s and CPAC, attracted many advocates for programs that help poor and disadvantaged Canadians.

The meeting followed a successful inaugural town-hall session in Winnipeg last month that focused on Aboriginal health issues.

The choice of Hamilton as venue for the second meeting was inspired by the Spectator’s “code red” series. Those articles, done in conjunction with McMaster University, uncovered “staggering disparities” in the lifespans of people living in different parts of the city. The series tied in well with the CMA’s rapidly expanding focus on the social determinants of health, which held centre stage at its 2012 annual meeting in Yellowknife.

Town hall moderator Ken MacQueen, Vancouver bureau chief for Maclean’s, said publication of that series means “there is probably no city in Canada more attuned to the public determinants of health than Hamilton.”

Reid was joined on the town-hall panel by Mark Chamberlain, president and CEO of Trivaris Ltd.; Dr. Dale Guenter, associate professor of family medicine at McMaster; Debbie Sheehan, senior nursing consultant at Simon Fraser University and former director of family health with Hamilton’s Public Health Services; and John Geddes, Maclean’s Ottawa bureau chief.

The panel discussion was once again built around four key questions dealing with the impact of social determinants (such as housing and income) on health, and ways to deal with them. Chamberlain argued that most health disparities are avoidable and that addressing the problems will result in increased productivity. Both panelists and audience members agreed that it will take a concerted effort to solve the problems, which exist across Canada.

“As an individual I can only do so much... at the bedside,” one physician in the audience commented, echoing Guenter’s argument that when it comes to the broader challenges of addressing social determinants of health “my little black bag doesn’t contain the answer.”

Audience members spoke eloquently about a wide range of factors such as pollution and disability that can lead to health inequities, and also suggested approaches and programs that could make a difference. Many agreed that acknowledging the issues and taking a coordinated approach to health inequities could make a difference.

“There is power in numbers,” a physician commented. “That’s why the CMA is here.”

Future town hall meetings will be held in Charlottetown March 28, Calgary April 23 and Montréal May 8.

Forward any comments about this article to: cmanews@cma.ca.