A Health Export Industry as Big as Autos

Article excerpt

Canada spends $8 billion a year on net imports of health care products and services, supporting 80,000 jobs in other countries. Instead, we are urged to use our publicly-funded health care system as a lever to capture a growing slice of the annual $1 trillion global health services market, expanding an industry here that could employ as many Canadians as the auto sector. Award acceptance speech at the Public Policy Forum 16th annual testimonial dinner, Toronto, April 10, 2003.

So much of our cultural identity and national pride are wrapped up in the icon of medicare; indeed in a recent survey identifying institutions of symbolic importance to Canada, medicare outstripped the Charter of Rights, the RCMP, the Maple Leaf and hockey. The latter by a two to one margin.

Hardly surprising, therefore, that Canadians so strongly urged compliance to the ideal of medicare on our political leaders and health care administrators. And the Romanow report and the Health Accord faithfully reflected the public's views and attachment to medicare.

But in our zeal to protect it and to be good stewards we have ignored at our peril the duality of the meaning of responsible stewardship. On the one hand it surely is about preserving, protecting and essentially ring-fencing what we hold dear. But it is also about growing and expanding the asset base of the portfolio; seeing and seizing opportunities, in this case capitalizing wherever possible on the $80 billion annual public investment in medicare.

As good stewards how successful have we been in taking full advantage of a publicly funded health care system to build a globally competitive Canadian health industries sector that is the envy of the world? Where are the great innovative Canadian health care products and services eagerly sought by others internationally? What has distinguished us beyond Pablum, developed in the 1930s at the Hospital for Sick Children? Or is our invention of a soft, bland and mushy cereal the prized expression of our highest aspiration for the future?

Sadly, the failure to embrace a holistic understanding of stewardship as it applies to the health system, and to pursue it with purpose has resulted in the purchase by the publicly funded health system of health products and services annually that produce a balance of payment deficit of $8 billion for the sector. That is, our health tax dollar is currently supporting net 80,000 private sector jobs in foreign countries producing the medical imaging, devices, pharmaceuticals etc. needed by our health system. Is this the most desirable public policy outcome supporting Canada's most cherished social program? If we continue to operate as we are and remain unmindful of our stewardship role, this number is projected to grow to 100,000 high level private sector jobs in foreign countries.

There is an alternative. It is to see Canada's publicly funded health system not as a cost to be endured, but as an opportunity to be explored. To align more effectively our social and economic policy directions; to put in place the right incentives; to reward entrepreneur ship and innovation; to ensure the investment and regulatory regimes facilitate access to capital and markets; and to celebrate success. …