[ Back to EurekAlert! ] Public release date: 29-Aug-2011
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Contact: Brian Kladko
University of British Columbia

Fear of 'gray tsunami' overblown: UBC research

2 studies show that demographics aren't entirely to blame for rising medical costs

Fears that Canada's aging population could lead to skyrocketing health care costs and doctor shortages may be greatly exaggerated, according to two studies by researchers at the University of British Columbia.

The research, by health economists at UBC's Centre for Health Services and Policy Research (CHSPR) and published today in the journal Healthcare Policy, pointed to other factors that are driving up costs: greater use of specialists, more diagnostic tests for the elderly, and increased consumption of increasingly expensive drugs.

One analysis by Steve Morgan, an associate director at CHSPR and an associate professor in the School of Population and Public Health, examined total health care spending in British Columbia from 1996 to 2006 (the most recent years for which the necessary data were available). The other study by Kimberlyn McGrail, an associate director at CHSPR and an assistant professor in the School of Population and Public Health, analyzed statistics on visits and fees paid to B.C. physicians during the same time period.

Both Morgan and McGrail found that the per capita cost of health care increased even after adjusting for inflation and population changes. Their research shows that neither the sharpest rise in cost nor the larger share of the increase was driven by the aging of the population, but by factors that can be controlled by health care providers or policy-makers.

"British Columbia's demographics are reasonably representative of the rest of Canada, so these figures show that nationwide, the health care system is as sustainable as we want it to be," Morgan says.

Both researchers noted a decline in spending and visits to general practitioners during that time period and a rise in the use of specialists, including those focused on diagnostic procedures.

McGrail says the "grey tsunami" is more like a "grey glacier," but even then, the resulting increase in costs is more a result of an evolving health care system, not necessarily an inexorably expanding one.

"There is no single cause for this shift it's the result of millions of treatment and referral decisions by thousands of clinicians," McGrail says. "But it does reflect that patients are receiving a different style of care than they used to they are seeing more different doctors and are having more tests done."

Backgrounder on both studies:

Steve Morgan's study of population aging and health care expenditures (1996-2006)

Kimberlyn McGrail's study of expenditures on physicians (1996-2006)


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