Better health for all

A letter from the Winnipeg Health Region

Winnipeg Health Region President & CEO
Wave, November / December 2013

Arlene Wilgosh
Arlene Wilgosh

Jim Tomko is the picture of good health.

As a member of the Wellness Institute at Seven Oaks Hospital, the 72-year-old Winnipeg man works out two or three times a week, riding an exercise bike, lifting weights and running laps. In doing so, he is helping to maintain his health and stave off the chronic diseases that are often associated with a sedentary lifestyle.

It is to help raise awareness about the importance of being active that Jim appears on the cover of this issue of Wave. He is one of several members of the Wellness Institute who volunteered for a photo shoot to help illustrate a column on healthy aging.

The article explains that exercise can help slow the aging process and deter some of the effects of chronic diseases ranging from heart disease to diabetes.

As members of the Wellness Institute, Tomko and the other volunteers who participated in the photo shoot are perfect role models for an active lifestyle. They are also prime examples of an emerging trend in our province.
According to the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy, Manitobans appear to be getting healthier and living longer. As evidence, the MCHP points to data gathered over the last five years. Among other things, the report found that:

  • The life expectancy of the average male is now 77.5 years, up one year over five years ago. Women, meanwhile, can now expect to live to the age of 82.2 years, up about six months over the same time period.
  • The premature mortality rate (people who die before the age of 75) has declined to 3.1 deaths per 1,000 people, down from 3.4 deaths per 1,000 people five years ago.
  • The prevalence of respiratory disease is 9.54 per cent, down from 10.8 per cent.
  • The prevalence of heart disease is 7.92 per cent, down from 8.80 per cent.

This is good news, especially for those of us working in the world of health care.

For many years now, the health-care system has been struggling to cope with rising rates of chronic disease. But, as the MCHP report notes, "We haven't seen this pattern of improvement over so many indicators in past reports. Something about the health of Manitobans has changed."

Just what accounts for this change, the MCHP researchers cannot say for sure. But the report, based on an analysis of 70 health indicators, does suggest that prevention efforts, front-line care and improvements in the way Manitobans manage their chronic conditions are all likely contributors to the improving numbers.

Unfortunately, not everyone shares equitably in these improved health outcomes. Areas such as downtown Winnipeg, the Interlake, and northern and northeastern Manitoba, do not fare as well.

"The bad news is that the health gap between rich and poor continues to widen," a summary accompanying the report states. "The gap continues to widen because the health of people living in lower-income areas either stayed the same or didn't improve as much as it did for others over the past five years."

Diabetes incidence rates, for example, were up to five times higher in some parts of rural health regions compared to the province as a whole, the report notes. "Several districts in the Northern (health region) and one in Interlake-Eastern, areas where the prevalence of diabetes was already high, had the highest rates of new cases being diagnosed," it says.

For many people struggling to meet basic needs, striving for a healthier lifestyle can be challenging. The benefits that come from front-line care, wellness programs and other health supports remain elusive.

The fact is socio-economic factors, such as housing and education, remain major determinants of health status. The more we do as a community to house the homeless, or improve the quality of housing for those in need, the healthier they will be. The more we do to educate our young people, the better chance they will have of finding good jobs and leading healthier lives.

Fortunately, efforts are underway to close the health gap. The Winnipeg Health Region has a number of programs and initiatives aimed at helping the most vulnerable in our community. One example is the Healthy Start for Mom and Me program that supports young moms and their newborns. Another is the Families First program that helps families learn about resources and support systems in the community.

There are other ways we are trying to address the health gap. The Region is a member of the Poverty Reduction Council of Winnipeg, which supports efforts to end homelessness and child poverty. The Region also collaborates with the United Way every year to help raise money for programs that address many of the underlying causes of health issues. We are also doing what we can to ensure the most frail among us have access to flu shots, which can help people stay well and out of hospital. Another example of how the Region is working to address the health gap involves the creation of the Health Equity committee. It recently completed a report with a view to kick-starting a conversation about how we might be able to better focus our services or work with others in the community to address issues that contribute to gaps in health outcomes.

Regionally, we understand closing the health gap will not be easy, and can't be done alone. We need to work with our community partners, and we also need to listen carefully to those we serve.

The challenges involved in closing the health gap are varied and complex, and we know they aren't likely to be solved overnight. But, we also know, thanks to the MCHP report, that better health has been achieved for many Manitobans who are living longer, healthier lives. The goal now, however, must be to work together to ensure we have better health for all.

Wave: November / December 2013

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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