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Factors such as poverty and poor nutrition most often drive poor health, the Canadian Medical Association heard. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Poverty kills, according to a national, Canadian Medical Association-sponsored discussion into the factors that cause people to fall sick.

The CMA released its report, "What Makes us Sick," today in Ottawa, based on a series of town hall meetings with 1,000 people across the country and a online consultation.

"What Canadians told us is that poverty is the recurring theme that underpins most of these social determinants of health," CMA president Dr. Anna Reid told reporters.

"It really hit me in a visceral way when we did those town halls."

The four main factors that participants identified were:

  • Income.
  • Housing.
  • Nutrition and food security.
  • Early childhood development.

Other social determinants of health mentioned included culture, the environment, education and health literacy.

In terms of physical health, those who are malnourished are more likely to become ill, Reid noted. Those who can only afford junk food because there are no supermarkets nearby can develop Type 2 diabetes.  People living in substandard housing that is mouldy can develop respiratory infections.

The huge stress of being poor also has mental health repercussions, Reid said, such as social isolation and increased suicide rates.

The medical association aims to raise awareness of the impact of poverty on health among doctors and the general public.  For doctors, it can be as simple as asking every patient if they have enough money to put food on the table, suggested Reid, a physician in Yellowknife.

The report's authors make 12 recommendations including:

  • Evaluate a guaranteed annual income approach funded by the federal government.
  • Expand the Mental Health Commission of Canada's "Housing First" approach to chronic mental-health issues.
  • Introduce a national food security program to ensure access to safe and nutritious food.
  • Develop cross-cultural awareness of Aboriginal health issues through educational initiatives.