Billions of dollars could be saved in Canada's health-care system with the introduction of preventive programs that focus on those individuals in poor health, says a study by the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary.

"Canadian medicare with its focus on illness treatment has made illness and disease a growth industry," lead author Herb Emery told reporters Wednesday.

"It's one of the fastest growing parts of our public system.... Where we see retraction in education and other areas, we're seeing continual five per cent growth per year in treating illness and we can't keep up with demand."

The report evaluates the costs and benefits of an alternative approach by examining the preventive health-care program run by Pure North S'Energy Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that pays for and provides personalized, preventative health-care services.

It includes lifestyle counselling, dietary supplements and dental services for Albertans from groups of people who tend to be in poor health.

The report found the annual health-care bill for a Canadian in poor health is more than $10,000 higher than for someone in good health.

The Pure North program achieved positive health outcomes at a cost of $2,300 per participant — far less than treating people once they become sick.

Health care costs unstable

"People in poor health tend to use more health care," Emery said. "The minority of the population, 20 per cent, is generating 80 per cent of the costs and these are generally people who are in poor health."

Individuals who are healthy tend to stay in good health, and those in poor health tend to stay that way, said Emery.

"What we're really talking about is chronic conditions ... diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. If we can intervene sooner, we can change lifestyles, we can change health. We can potentially restore the fiscal sustainability of the health care."

Emery said about 250,000 Albertans describe themselves as being in poor health. If even 45 per cent of that number showed an improvement, it would cut the number of their days in hospital by 25 per cent. He said that would save the system $500 million a year.

Emery said if that was expanded across Canada, the savings would be "in the billions."

"I think the interest in making people healthier and avoiding chronic diseases is Canada-wide. Everyone agrees that if you can figure out how, it has a higher return for the medicare system. The piece that is missing out there is how do you make people healthier?"