In a national survey, 14 per cent of respondents said they had delayed or stopped buying prescription medications because money was tight. ((iStockphoto))

The economic downturn has affected how Canadians care for their health, particularly those in the lowest income groups — with people eating and sleeping less, spending less on prescriptions and skipping medical and dental appointments, according to a study released Monday in Saskatchewan.

The 9th annual National Report Card on Health Care in Canada found 52 per cent of Canadians are worried about their health compared to 57 per cent who are worried about their financial security and 27 per cent who are worried about losing their jobs.

"This year, the [Canadian Medical Association's] report card shows that these tough economic times could also be a serious health hazard for Canadians," said Dr. Robert Ouellet, president of the CMA, which commissioned the study.

"There is a mistaken impression that health care is somehow insulated from today's harsh economic reality. Our polling results show that's just not the case."

Among the study's other findings:

  • 40 per cent said they felt stressed and/or overwhelmed by financial concerns. Among those who earn less than $30,000, that number rises to 51 per cent.
  • 25 per cent said they have delayed or cancelled a dentist appointment as a result of financial worries. The figure is 34 per cent among Canadians who earn less than $30,000.
  • 16 per cent of those polled said they skip meals to save money, with the figure rising to 28 per cent in the lowest income bracket.
  • 23 per cent said they are losing sleep over economic worries, with the figure rising to 33 per cent among those without a university degree.
  • 14 per cent said they had delayed or stopped buying their prescription medications because money was tight.

Dental, pharmacare gaps

Maria Caravallo of Toronto said she's stressed about the economy. Caravello has cut back on food, and is only going to the doctor once in a while because she sometimes can't afford to fill prescriptions.

"If you're sick, very sick, that's the time that you go, 'cause medications are so expensive," Caravallo, a mother of two, said as she shopped for groceries.

The poll results reflect how access to dental care and pharmacare coverage is uneven across Canada, Ouellet said.

Patients started putting off treatments about six months ago, said Dr. Michael Perelgut, a dentist in Toronto.

"They are afraid of holding on to their jobs, they're afraid of the future, they're looking at the recession," Perelgut said.

The link between economic downturns and declining health is clear, said Dennis Raphael, a professor in the school of health policy and management at York University in Toronto, who studies the social determinants of health.

"The best health care in the world will not make up for the kinds of problems with living conditions that people experience, especially during recessions," Raphael said.

Two-thirds of those surveyed approved of Canada's health care system, the CMA found. In 2009, 67 per cent gave the system an A or a B for overall quality, a number virtually unchanged from the previous year.

When asked to rate their own health, 41 per cent said their health was either excellent or very good. Another 38 per cent said their health is good, while 20 per cent rated their health as either fair or poor.

The research was conducted by telephone and online. Ipsos-Reid surveyed 1,002 Canadian adults between June 7 and 9, 2009, by phone; the results are considered accurate within 3.2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. Between June 25 and July 11, 2009, Ipsos Reid surveyed 3,223 Canadian adults online; a sample of this size is considered to have a 1.73 percentage-point margin of error.

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