HEALTH – What medicines do we really need in Canada?

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Expert Adviser

CANADIANS OFTEN express pride in our universal health system, which provides publicly funded doctor and hospital services. We don’t have to worry about filing for bankruptcy to get care when we need it.

But when it comes to prescription medications, our health system comes up short.

That’s because most medications outside of the hospital setting aren’t covered by the health system. Canadians must rely on private drug insurance or pay for sometimes costly medications themselves. Some provinces offer prescription drug coverage to certain populations – low income citizens or seniors, for example – but still one in five Canadians report that a member of their household can’t afford medications.

That means many Canadians aren’t getting the medicine they need – and the consequences can be devastating.

As well as providing patients with critical medications when they need them, an essential medicines list helps patients get the right medicine

So how can we make sure Canadians have better access to prescription medications?

We could improve the health of Canadians by facilitating access to a carefully selected set of essential medicines.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has developed a model list of essential medicines designed to meet the core needs of people. It recommends that each nation adapt the list to local circumstances and facilitate access to the medications.

In a recent article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal Open, my colleagues and I adapt the WHO’s list based on Canadian guidelines and input from Canadian clinicians.

Hundreds of countries have essential medicines lists and we can learn from their successes and challenges. These include high-income countries like Sweden, which has more than a decade of good experience with its Wise List, middle-income countries like India and low income countries from Armenia to Zimbabwe.

In addition to providing patients with critical medications when they need them, an essential medicines list helps make sure patients are getting the right medicine.


More than 10,000 pharmaceutical products are approved for sale in Canada, and public formularies, which determine which medicines to fund for some groups (welfare recipients, people with disabilities and older adults), contain 3,000 to 5,000 medicines. That’s a lot of information to track.

With a short list of essential medicines, there’s less likelihood of error and confusion because patients, doctors and pharmacists only need to know about a small number of medicines.

Critics might argue that an essential medicines list could limit choice and access to important new prescription medications. But we may not have as many choices as we think.

Are we offered choice when there’s such an overwhelming list of products that health practitioners can’t possibly keep up? Prescribing decisions are too often based on the beliefs and habits of the health practitioner holding the pen – which might be based on the best available evidence but is often based on messages in pharmaceutical marketing campaigns.

When was the last time a doctor explained the pros and cons of each of the 11 ACE inhibitor blood pressure medicines and asked the patient which they would like to take? What would the doctor even say given that there are no important differences between the medicines?

Governments often have a tough time saying no to drug companies that have made a product similar to a previously approved drug because they might be asked, “Why did you approve that company’s product but not ours?” So these me-too products proliferate and we end up with a large number of medications that do the same thing.

The people who can’t afford medicines now are forced to make different choices. Nobody should have to decide whether to pay the rent or buy food, or take a life-saving medication for high blood pressure, diabetes or HIV-AIDS. And that’s happening in Canada.

How can our governments afford to pay for essential medicines?

A short list of elite medicines could actually help us save money by focusing competition on fewer products, which we could purchase in larger quantities. Less could mean more bargaining power.

Prescription medicines only have their intended benefits when they’re accessible and prescribed appropriately. Developing a list of essential medicines in Canada and publicly funding them could promote progress on both fronts.

Nav Persaud is an expert adviser with, a physician and associate scientist at St Michael’s Hospital and an assistant professor at the University of Toronto.

© 2017 Distributed by Troy Media

About Mel Rothenburger (6018 Articles) is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

2 Comments on HEALTH – What medicines do we really need in Canada?

  1. – I’ve never felt like a guinea pig when I went to my doctor about medications -as if: I’d try them and he’d get an idea on how they function outright, etc.

    We’ve got it good in Canada and I’d hate to see us put any competition on medications, as our availability is quite high in the present mode.

    Wouldn’t we then be pigeon-holing ourselves with quantifying any particular medicine down the road, as the medicine field advances along?

    -I don’t know, our prescription medicine purchasing system seems like a good reflection of some of the primary health _we have_ across the country (being fair and comprehensive)and going someone’s else’s route (like that of the Islamaphobia bill just passed in Parliament; comparing ourselves to other places in Europe that it also passed in) seems like something more to put us more in jeopardy, than had we stuck to the plain version of ‘everyone being treated the same.’

  2. What medicines do we really need in Canada?
    Plenty of (preferably in seasons) fruit and vegetables, little or no red meat, no smoking, little alcohol, regular exercise, clean air to breathe, plenty of pure water to drink and a restful night of sleep.
    Public policy should be shaped on these few points for the long term benefit of all and at a lesser cost to the public purse.

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