Evolving trends in Canada's healthcare and drug landscape

Report from TELUS Health highlights shifts in costs and utilization during pandemic

Evolving trends in Canada's healthcare and drug landscape

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Despite its many challenges, COVID-19 has provided us with the opportunity to reflect on our healthcare system and consider new ways of solving problems and prioritizing what is most important to Canadians. The changes brought on by the pandemic will have both short- and long-term impacts for Canadian employers and the well-being of their employees, so it is important to watch those trends as Canada charts a new path forward.

To note these changing trends, TELUS Health released its sixth annual 2021 Drug Data Trends and National Benchmarks Report, which highlights the shifts in private drug plan costs and utilization during the pandemic and provides insight into how policymakers, plan sponsors and employers can drive improvements and innovative practices through health benefits plans. The report demonstrates how the shifting priorities of working Canadians will impact Canada’s health benefits landscape in key areas such as mental health, acute medications and access to care.

A number of trends were directly influenced by the pandemic. Claims for acute medications, such as antibiotics used to treat common infections like strep throat, dropped sharply at the onset of the pandemic. With Canadians quarantining and social distancing, the need to treat infections was reduced due to the lower risk of community transfer in schools and workplaces.

“This steep decline may have also been a result of Canadians’ concerns surrounding in-person care amidst the pandemic,” says Shawn O’Brien, TELUS Health’s principal of health benefits management. According to a 2020 study conducted by Nanos Research and TELUS Health, 70 per cent of British Columbians and 76 per cent of Ontarians reported feeling anxious about exposure to the virus when accessing care in medical environments such as hospitals or clinics.

Some Canadians even delayed accessing care for themselves or their loved ones.

“With so many unknowns in the early stages of the pandemic, a lot of individuals and their families were hesitant to seek in-person care. However, this seemed to change as the COVID-19 situation in Canada continued to evolve,” says O’Brien. In the latter half of 2020, these claims began to rise again, which may be the result of increased use of virtual care services enabling people to safely and securely get the care they need.

The TELUS Health report also notes that specialty drug use continues to rise in Canada. Specialty drugs, which are complex medications used to treat rare and chronic conditions, account for a third of costs, for just 1.3 per cent of claimants. In 2020, the eligible monthly growth rate for specialty drugs was more than six times that for traditional drugs.

In addition to reinforcing Canada’s desire for more targeted, specialized therapies, this rapidly growing trend is also the result of a higher average price, utilization and availability of new drugs and drug classes.

As specialty drugs continue to rise, mandatory generic substitution policies will support employers in identifying plans that take an employee-centric approach to health benefits and contribute to cost savings which can be reinvested to fund other resources that enable employees to remain healthy and productive at work.

The TELUS Health report also highlights the negative impact COVID-19 had on the mental health and well-being of Canadians, which comes as no surprise following the challenging period Canadian employers and employees endured. We expect to see these negative effects continue long after the pandemic.

According to the TELUS Health report, claims for drugs used to treat depression increased by 10 per cent for adults and 22 per cent for dependents. These challenges were particularly prevalent for Canada’s younger demographic — in the 20-39 age group, the number of claimants for antidepressants climbed from 5.6 per cent in 2016 to 7.9 per cent in 2020.

While mental health challenges were likely exacerbated by the pandemic, the rise in claims over the past five years likely also reflects the success in breaking down barriers and stigmas associated with mental health challenges and seeking necessary support. Benefits plans that enable employees to receive the care they need in regards to both their physical and mental health will be critical in ensuring that they feel as supported as possible, especially in a post-pandemic setting.

Taking a look at these trends, there is no doubt that the healthcare benefits landscape is changing. Canadians have learned how to adapt and that ability to evolve will be important for both employers and employees returning to work while they navigate a “new normal”. Tools such as virtual care services, will enable employees to access care unique to their demands — where and when it is needed. As we move beyond the pandemic, keeping an eye on such trends will help employers successfully implement tools needed to promote healthy lives, in and out of the workplace

For more information, and to access the full report, visit TELUS Health Benefits Hub.

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