Health

NWT’s health problems, widely known, are borne out in data


New data summarizing the health of NWT residents lays bare the scale of problems facing the territorial government.

Hospitalizations related to mental health and substance use are at or near their highest rates in more than a decade, pre-pandemic figures from the NWT healthcare system’s annual report show.

A third of NWT residents smoke, three in 10 drink heavily, and 40 percent recorded a body mass index considered obese by the territory’s reporting system.

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Meanwhile, patient satisfaction dropped nine percentage points in a year.

The territory spent more than half a billion dollars on healthcare in the last financial year, including more than $40 million on residents’ treatment in southern hospitals.

Some outcomes of that spending are promising.

For example, children in the child protection system are increasingly able to remain in their home community. That was true for 93 percent of affected children in 2019-20, and is considered beneficial as it keeps children connected to their culture, family, and friends.

The rate of preventable deaths in the NWT, which has dropped steadily since the 1980s, continues to slowly decline year on year – keeping more people alive.

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But many figures related to mental health demonstrate the crisis the territory continues to face.

The NWT’s overall mental health hospitalization rate – 15 discharges per 1,000 people, using the territory’s measuring standard – is more than twice the western Canadian average.

The territory has four times the western Canadian rate of hospitalizations for problems related to alcohol and drugs, and three times the rate of hospitalizations related to stress and adjustment disorder.

The NWT’s rate of hospitalizations for harm caused by substance use (20 discharges per 1,000 people) approaches four times the national average. Eighty-six percent of those involve alcohol, a far bigger cause of hospitalization than cannabis, cocaine, or opioids.

The territory’s rate of hospitalizations for self-harm has more than doubled between 2007 and 2020.

Even numbers for cancer screening – which can be vital to early detection – are dropping year-on-year. The territory is nowhere near national minimum screening targets for colorectal cancer, breast cancer, and cervical cancer, and is also missing national targets for childhood vaccination with the exception of chickenpox.

The percentage of NWT residents who considered their healthcare service excellent or good – which hadn’t dipped below 90 percent in data going back to 2004 – fell to 81 percent in 2019-20. (The territory says long-term trends are hard to measure accurately as “the last nine questionnaires have varied in terms of which service areas were surveyed.”)

Systemic racism, cultural safety

The figures in the report are for the financial year 2019-2020, which ended on March 31, and therefore the data barely reflects the advent of Covid-19. Most statistics are not broken down by region.

Improvements are being made, the territorial government said in summarizing the report.

The GNWT argues child and youth care counsellors are making mental health services easier to access for young people, more on-the-land healing programs delivered by Indigenous governments are being funded, and work is taking place on a territorial strategy to combat the damage being wrought by alcohol.

Lastly, the report states the Department of Health and Social Services is working to “address systemic racism and advance cultural safety.”

A separate report published by the Tłı̨chǫ Community Services Agency states one in five Tłı̨chǫ-region patients had concerns about being treated with respect and dignity throughout their time in medical care.

“Patients most frequently noted wanting professionalism and training amongst staff,” that report found. Specific suggestions included training in the Tłı̨chǫ language and cultural competency.

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