July 6, 2011 : Costs Of Aging Population Are Poor Excuse for High Immigration

Costs Of Aging Population Are Poor Excuse for High Immigration

As we have pointed out before,  Canada’s immigration industry, and a significant number of those in the media and government like to tell us that high immigration is necessary in order to offset the negative effects of our aging population. However, in the late 1980’s, Health and Welfare Canada investigated whether immigration was a good way to counter the effects of an aging population. It concluded that an immigration intake of as high as 600,000 per year would not reduce Canada’s average age. Making use of Canada’s existing population, not high immigration, was a better way to deal with this issue.

In the Op Ed below, Alan Cassels of the University of Victoria adds important research to this issue. He says that a B.C. study showed that Canada’s aging population was only a minor contributor to rising health care costs. In spite of that evidence, he found that about half of the 132 Canadian articles in two large media databases, which used the phrase “aging of the population”, reinforced the notion that Canada’s aging population was the cause of rising health care costs.

The B.C. study had concluded that greater use of our health care system by everyone contributed most to higher costs.

Mr. Cassels states that becoming aware of the truth and correcting pandemic-like mis-information are crucial to making vitally-important public policy decisions in Canada.

Mr. Cassels does not mention the word “immigration”, but it is clear that what he says is connected to that topic.


Aging population not the main driver behind rising health care costs

By Alan Cassels,
Vancouver Sun
July 5, 2011

Feeling anxious that Canada’s publicly funded health care system is soon to be crushed by the aging tsunami sweeping the nation?

Then take some comfort in knowing that your anxiety may not be due to your genes, but your memes. What’s a meme you ask? British scientist Richard Dawkins defined it as a unit of cultural transmission, analogous to a gene. Genes transmit biological information, whereas memes are ideas that transmit cultural information.

Malcolm Gladwell said that a meme “behaves like a virus that moves through a population, taking hold in each person it infects.”

Memes transmit current notions and ideas about health care and they can be highly communicable, spread pandemic-like and infect quickly and broadly. They can be destructive by raising unnecessary panic and fear, and fuel irresponsible political responses.

“The aging of the population will destroy public health care” is a pernicious meme invoked by demographers, politicians, economic pundits, media columnists and others. Wielding stark demographics, they say baby boomers will soon launch a terrifying tsunami-like assault on our public health care system. Call it demographic demagogy, but the implications are clear: Prepare for disaster!

But before you go scurrying for higher ground, you’ll want to know: Is the “greying tsunami” meme even true? The answer in a nutshell: not really. Statistically, health care spending has risen quite a lot in the last few decades, and the key culprits are general population growth (there are more of us), inflation (things cost more as time goes by), aging (as we get older we use more medical services) and utilization (we are all using more health care stuff, including drugs, doctor visits, screening and diagnostic tests and hospitals).

The aging population might be causing health care costs to rise, but by how much? Independent researchers and economists conclude that about one per cent of the annual increase in health care spending is due to “aging.” Which is to say if health spending grows at an annual rate of five per cent, one-fifth of that is because more of us are getting old.

While the aging population is contributing to increases in health care spending, increased utilization (more drugs, doctor visits, surgeries and diagnostic/screening tests) contributed about four times as much. Maybe the greying tsunami should be rewritten as the “tsunami of over-medicalization.”

A B.C. study found that over the past 30 years population growth accounted for seven per cent of growth in health care spending, aging 14 per cent, inflation 19 per cent and increased utilization 59 per cent.

Earlier this year, my colleague Jaclyn Morrison and I searched two large media databases containing all of Canada’s major daily newspapers to see how the phrase “aging of the population” was being used. If the article focused on the growth in health care spending we asked: Did the article provide an alternative hypothesis to explain that growth?

We discovered about half of the 132 articles we found mentioned the fact that more drugs, physicians, surgery, technology and specialized care was increasing health care costs. But the other half of the stories we found reinforced the Aging Tsunami Meme by not providing any alternative explanations for the growth in health care costs.

Our conclusion? Politicians, media spokespeople and columnists don’t always lay sole blame on the elderly for the growth in health system costs, but many of them do. Those who do deserve a public scolding for transmitting and reinforcing a meme which could shape future health policy options and stifle true debate.

Canadians need an unbiased assessment of things as they are. There is much to do to improve the public health care system in Canada: Why not immunize ourselves from bad memes so we can debate things with a correct assessment of the facts?

Alan Cassels is a drug policy researcher at the University of Victoria.