Universal public coverage of essential drugs would improve healthcare, research suggests

Ada Dominguez struggles to pay for her medications and sometimes does without. (Melanie Glanz:CBC
Ada Dominguez struggles to pay for her medications and sometimes does without. (Melanie Glanz/CBC

Governments should pay for essential prescribed medicines for all Canadians in order to improve their health care, new research suggests.

Drugs considered “essential medicines” should be available at all times to everyone who needs them, the researchers say. Examples include insulin, some antibiotics and oral contraceptives.

The World Health Organization introduced the concept of essential medicines, and more than 110 countries have adapted it to their needs. Canada has not, despite a 2012 call from the House of Commons health committee to establish such a list as soon as possible.

In Monday’s issue of the CMAJ Open, an online open-access journal, Dr. Nav Persaud, a family physician at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, and his team describe how they developed a preliminary Canadian essential medicines list of 125 drugs.

“If you look at the medications on the list, these are treatments for high blood pressure, diabetes, HIV,” Persaud said in an interview. The medications have been shown to save lives.

“We also know that there are people who don’t take these medications because of the cost. If you put those two things together, it seems likely that an essential medicines list could improve care and improve life expectancy.”

Medications on the list accounted for 44 per cent of all prescriptions filled at retail pharmacies in 2015, the researchers said.

It’s estimated that in Canada, one in 10 people, or about three million, cannot afford prescribed medications.

“I care for people who have come from lower-income countries where they have medication access programs, and then they’ve been surprised when they came here and didn’t have access to medications,” Persaud said. 

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Universal coverage of essential drugs

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