If a shortened lifespan doesn't scare you into dropping some unhealthy habits, maybe the prospect of a lengthy hospital stay will.

Health calculators

You can calculate your own risk of hospitalization as well as your life expectancy by filling out a short online questionnaire created by Ontario researchers. Visit www.projectbiglife.ca to try it out.

That's the thinking behind new online tools developed by the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences and the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute. The researchers launched a "future hospital use" calculator today that invites users to fill out a short health profile and see how many days they're likely to end up spending in ward care based on their current lifestyles.

"There's people with health behaviour risks who might say, 'I don't mind smoking, I'll die younger, I'm doing OK,'" said Dr. Doug Manuel, lead author and senior scientist at ICES and the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute.

"You might not mind having a shorter life, but people don't want to go to hospital. You're not dodging this bullet."

Left unchecked, Manuel warns, the economic consequences could put a big load on the health-care system, costing the province billions that could be saved if people cut down on drinking, butted out, exercised more and started eating better.

'Life expectancy calculator' launched in April

The new hospitalization calculator appears a month after the research institute published another interactive tool, an online "life expectancy calculator" designed to show people how long they can expect to live, based on their current health behaviours.

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An online 'calculator' developed by Ontario researchers and launched today predicts how long users will potentially need to stay in hospital over their lifetime, based on their current lifestyle habits. (Getty images)

Both questionnaires take about three minutes to complete. They were created as companions to Manuel's new study released today, which identifies four main "health behaviour risks" — smoking, physical inactivity, poor diet and alcohol consumption — as being responsible for sending Ontarians to hospital for more than 900,000 days a year.

"All these behaviours really affect a lot of the reasons why you're in hospital, or at least they affect your length of stay," said Manuel, the lead author of the paper, which was jointly produced by ICES and the Ontario Hospital Research Institutes.

The behaviours also result in a life that's potentially robbed of some quality, he said.

Using the hypothetical example of a 54-year-old Ontarian who hits all four unhealthy risk behaviours, Manuel said that person would likely require the same amount of hospital care as a 75-year-old who doesn’t engage in any of the risk behaviours.

"We know for a lot of people, [length of stay in hospital] doesn’t mean much," Manuel said. "But when you present it in this way, with a 20-year gap as an age equivalent, it’s easier to understand."

He noted that while other studies have looked separately at the health effects of the four health risk behaviours, "now we look at all the risk factors together."

Just 7.2% had no health behaviour risks

Manuel's 900,000 Hospital Days study found that nearly 93 per cent of the 79,300 Ontario health profiles analyzed had at least one of the health behaviour risks.

'We need to create an environment that actively makes it easier for Ontarians to live healthier lives, regardless of their income and where they live, work, study or play.' - Larry Stinson, president of the Ontario Public Health Association

Only 7.2 per cent of the respondents had none of the health behaviour risks.

It all makes for a troubling "economic burden" on Ontario’s health system, Manuel said, who was surprised to learn what the costs of unhealthy living and hospitalizations could be.

"We estimated about $1.8 billion of hospital use, or basically one-third of people in hospital, are there because of unhealthy living," he said. "That, for us, was the biggest eye-opener."

The study also found that:

  • 32 per cent of hospital bed use between 2001 and 2012 could be attributed to smoking, physical inactivity, poor diet and unhealthy alcohol consumption.
  • In 2011, these unhealthy behaviours accounted for the use of 942,000 hospital bed days (a single measure which combines the number of hospitalization and total length of hospital stay).
  • Smoking had the greatest effect on hospital use (17 per cent), followed by physical inactivity (12 per cent) and poor diet (six per cent).

The 900,000 Days in Hospital report was based on data compiled from Statistics Canada phone surveys from 2001 until 2012. The respondents who agreed to share their OHIP information were followed for up to seven years after completing their surveys.

The life-expectancy calculator was created using the results of the report.

Larry Stinson, president of the Ontario Public Health Association, which commissioned the 900,000 Days in Hospital study, said in a release that the new report shows clear benefits of healthy living.

"Unfortunately, fixing this rather large problem is not as easy as people simply deciding to make healthier choices," he said. "We need to create an environment that actively makes it easier for Ontarians to live healthier lives, regardless of their income and where they live, work, study or play."

The study did not include an overall margin of error.