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Less poverty, not more medicine, will heal Canada's health woes: O'Brien Institute guest André Picard

Globe and Mail health reporter reflects on three decades of covering Canadian health care
May 10, 2017

Globe and Mail health reporter and author André Picard will be in Calgary to discuss his new book, Matters of Life and Death: Public Health Issues in Canada, on May 17. 

In more than 30 years at the the Globe and Mail, health journalist André Picard has covered the most important health issues of our time — beginning with the AIDS crisis when he was a summer intern in the late 1980s.

In 1987, countless people — most of them gay men — were dying of AIDS, and Picard was one of the first in the news media to pay attention to the issue.

In his new book, Matters of Life and Death: Public Health Issues in Canada, Picard describes meeting a man admitted to St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. The patient was being treated for a bacterial infection, but because he was openly gay, hospital staff hung a sign above his bed warning of the risk of blood and bodily fluid contamination. When Picard reached out to shake his hand upon meeting him, the patient burst into tears. After the story ran, St. Michael’s made a public apology, and changed their discriminatory policy.

'More important to care for people'

AIDS profoundly changed how we view health and treat illness, and it forever changed health journalism, says Picard. “AIDS activists taught me — and society more generally — that the choices we make about health and medicine are inherently political, and that it is more important to care for people than it is to treat their symptoms.”

This is the kind of insight Picard will share during a Calgary stop hosted by the Cumming School of Medicine’s O’Brien Institute for Public Health as part of the launch tour for Matters of Life and Death. The public event, which is being held in partnership with the Calgary Public Library and the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy, is open to the public, free to attend and will be held in the Dutton Theatre at the Central Library on May 17.

Tackling the health issues he discusses in his book, as well as what ails the Canadian health-care system in general, Picard will engage with high-level discussants, such as the O’Brien Institute’s scientific director Dr. William Ghali, P.G. Forest, director of  UCalgary’s School of Public Policy, Dr. Lynn McIntyre, former head of the Canadian Public Health Association, and Dr. Hakique Virani, an Edmonton physician at the vanguard of the opioid crisis in Alberta.

Translating the health-care experience

Matters of Life and Death is a selection of Picard’s columns spanning a career that’s seen him delve into such diverse topics as drug policy, end-of-life care, and the health of Canada’s Indigenous peoples.

Picard says he views himself as a translator — taking medical and health research, and translating it into digestible morsels for a lay audience. It’s a vital role, adds Virani.

 “André skillfully removes jargon and debunks prevalent pseudoscience. He makes knowledge relevant to people," says Virani, a clinical professor with the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Alberta.

The quality commentary Picard provides on the issues of the day is also key for bringing public health issues into the mainstream, adds Ghali. “André Picard is a highly acclaimed, influential voice for public health at the national level,” says Ghali, a professor in the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary. “His decades of balanced, insightful reporting on complex public policy issues has established him as a respected leader in the field of health journalism.”

Inequality, income and the health of society

Breakthroughs in medical research or technology tend to dominate headlines, but Picard writes that often-overlooked factors such as education, income, employment, housing and the environment influence health as much, if not more than medical treatments.

“The evidence is clear — and has been for a long time — that the greatest impact on our health comes not from genetics or medicine, but from our socio-economic circumstances,” says Picard.

In one Globe article, Money: The Most Powerful Drug, Picard writes how socio-economic determinants have a profound influence on health, with income being at the top in terms of importance.

“The most powerful drug we have is money,” Picard says. “If you have a decent income, it opens the door to living a good life; conversely, poverty is a debilitating condition that robs you of quality of life, and shaves years off your life expectancy.”

If we want a healthy society, Picard writes we must look beyond just a health-care system that delivers state-of-the-art sickness care. An environment and culture that support healthy living is also crucial.

Virani agrees. “If I could prescribe housing like I can medications, treating substance use disorders would be a lot easier,” says Virani. “And if I could prescribe equity, I'd put myself out of work almost completely.

“In this way, (Picard’s) work may well save more lives than what I do as a clinician.”

More information on how to attend this event is available here.