Exchange-Robot Doctor

Neurosurgeon and stroke program director Dr. John Whapham in Toledo, Ohio, demonstrates two medical tools that will expand the range of expert care from the bedside. Telestroke hasn't been used to its full potential, Canadian experts say. (Jetta Fraser/The Blade/Associated Press)

Stroke death rates have improved in Canada but an aging population and sicker patients could threaten the gains.

Thursday’s annual report from the Heart and Stroke Foundation says an estimated 50,000 strokes occur in Canada every year, or one every 10 minutes. About 315,000 Canadians are living with its effects.

"As our population gets older there will be more strokes and more patients to treat; many of these patients will be sicker, so there will be a bigger burden on the health-care system, on society and on families," Dr. Michael Hill, director of the stroke unit at the Calgary Stroke Program, said in the report.

Compared with five years ago, more hospitals are administering clot-busting drugs that can reduce damage to the brain if given within hours of a stroke. There is room to improve — less than one-third of hospitals that provide stroke services offer the clot-buster.

About two-thirds of stroke patients have a combination of illnesses such as chronic conditions that can make their care more complex, the group said.

In the past decade, strokes among people in their 50s have increased by 24 per cent.

The foundation estimates up to 80 per cent of premature heart disease and stroke can be prevented. Some healthy behaviours to adopt are to eat a nutritious diet, get enough physical activity, not smoke, control blood pressure, manage diabetes, limit alcohol intake and manage stress.

Stroke survival rates vary across Canada with the best chances in Quebec and Alberta. Atlantic Canadians are at greater risk of dying from a stroke, the report suggests. Reasons for the differences include:

  • Urban or rural locations.
  • Coordination of stroke services.
  • Availability of services.

Only 60 per cent of stroke patients who leave hospital return home and of those 11 per cent have home support services in place.

Better access to care and rehabilitation could speed up and improve recovery, the group said. It pointed to how 16 per cent of all stroke patients go to in-patient rehabilitation, despite evidence that suggests the number should be closer to 40 per cent.

Telemedicine also has potential to expand for stroke care.