Canada needs to give more attention to farmer health, and not just accidents. While accident prevention is indeed important, health on the farm is not just about accidents. It encompasses fatigue, physical stress, obesity, occupational exposure to hazards, family and social demands, living in a rural area, which demands travelling long distances for health care and social events, and mental stress. Many of these “stressors” lead to chronic health conditions (such as diabetes and heart disease), which a farmer may not be aware he or she has, or may not be managing properly.
The issue of farmer health was the topic of a recent forum, “Better Farmer Health, Better Farm Business,” held by the Poultry Industry Council (PIC). The forum addressed the fact that chronic disease and mental stress in farmers do not always receive sufficient attention, and that more data is needed to determine how many farmers are afflicted and how health-care providers in rural communities can tackle these issues.
Dean Anderson, chair of the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association (CASA), says that although the organization can provide data on fatal accidents and major injuries, what is not as easily captured is the number of minor injuries (such as muscle strains) that can lead to chronic problems, and the prevalence of disease.
Rural physician Dr. Rob Annis, from the North Perth family health team in Listowel, Ont., noted that the vast area his Local Health Integrated Network serves has the highest rate of chronic disease of any area in the province. This area just happens to have the largest concentration of farms in the province.
Is this just a coincidence? It’s hard to say because the data linking type of employment to various health issues is virtually non-existent. But if we look towards data collected by Australia, it’s likely not.
The keynote speaker at the forum was Prof. Sue Brumby, a registered nurse from the Deakin University School of Medicine in Australia. She noted that, in Australia many farms of similar size to those in Canada are family-owned, and located in rural parts of the country. Australian farmers also have higher incidences of diabetes, psychological issues and exposure to occupational hazards than their urban counterparts.
Until she helped launch the “Sustainable Farm Families” program, Brumby said that the collaboration between health professionals and agriculture was poor. The program addresses health and well-being so that farmers can achieve better health and, consequently, a better business. Participants were assessed for health risks, given training and advice on such topics as exercise, healthy eating, mental health and relaxation. They were responsible for charting their progress in a “learning log.” The program is a collaborative effort between health professionals and local community services, and Brumby said it’s the “magic” of these interrelationships that really makes the program work.
The result? Two to three years later, data shows that participants had a significant reduction in the risk factors for disease, and were less stressed and depressed. It’s now known what risk factors are present for farmers and how to mitigate them. This allows for better awareness and training for health professionals serving rural areas.
Could a program like this work in Canada? Sure it could, but the usual suspect comes up: who will fund it? And as Dr. Annis noted, our health-care system was not designed to handle chronic disease preventive care, but only acute, immediate problems.
Rural health teams are becoming more aware of these issues, and farmers can help themselves by seeking help. But what we really need is someone like Sue Brumby, who is dedicated enough to implement, and lead, a collaborative health program that will give us the statistics we need to foster real change.
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