Canada needs a list of 'essential medicines'

Canadians are proud of their health-care system. But when it comes to prescription medications, it comes up woefully short, argues Dr. Nav Persaud. He says there is both a financial and health benefit if Canada adopts a list of essential medicines.
Because most medications outside of the hospital setting aren't covered by our health system, many Canadians have to pay out of pocket for their prescriptions if they don't have a drug plan, Dr. Nav Persaud says. (Getty Images/Blend Images)

Think back to the last time you filled a prescription. 

Now think back to who paid for that. 

There's a good chance that if you don't have a drug plan, you paid out of pocket for your last prescription - because outside of the hospital, prescription medications are not covered. 

But Dr. Nav Persaud argues that if Canada would come up with an "essential medicines" list that would not only save our health-care system money, but also help one in five Canadians who report that they, or a member of their households, do not take medications as prescribed because of cost.

Canadians who can't afford medicines now are already forced to make different choices. Food or medicines? Prescription medicines only deliver on their intended benefits when they are accessible and prescribed appropriately. Nobody should have to decide whether to pay the rent or to take a life-saving medication.- Dr. Nav Persaud

And, Dr. Persaud says, since the World Health Organization (WHO) came up with a model list of essential medicines in 1977, it wouldn't be too difficult for Canada to tailor that list to suit the needs of Canadians.

He notes, ​countries including Armenia, India, Sweden and Zimbabwe are just some of the more than 100 nations to have adopted a list already. 

If Canada were to do so, Dr. Persaud says it would save Canadians an estimated $3 billion per year.

The main benefit isn't even a financial, because the list would help make sure people are getting the right medicine.- Dr. Nav Persaud

Some critics fear such a list could eliminate choice, forcing Canadians to use only one kind of medication for a particular ailment. 

But Dr. Persaud argues there's little choice under the current system: when one drug company makes an ACE inhibitor blood pressure medicine, for example, and gets it approved in Canada, many other companies follow. That means there could be a dozen drugs to choose from, but they're essentially all the same.

"So there is only a mirage of choice," he says. 


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