APRIL 30, 2006


Hamilton MDs rally to cure local poverty

"You hear patients talking about not having enough food or not having a roof over their head," says Dr Diana Ahmed, a physician at the North Hamilton Community Health Centre and co-founder of Hamilton Health Care Providers Against Poverty (HHCPAP). "We see the front lines of poverty. After a while you feel the need to do more than simply treat the individual sitting in front of you." She and her newly minted healthcare activists are determined to bring attention to the terrible toll poverty takes on the health of Hamiltonians.

Poverty's a big deal in Hamilton. Most of the patients Dr Ahmed sees are on welfare. According to the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton, there are enough local people living in poverty to fill the 17,500-seat Copps Coliseum five times over. As income levels have continued to lag behind the rising cost of living, nearly 20% of Hamilton's 95,370 residents live below the poverty line, including 25% of all children under the age of 12.

Beyond being unable to meet their immediate nutritional needs, Dr Ahmed — backed up by reams of governmental and institutional research and studies — says people living in poverty have a higher mortality rate, are more likely to be hospitalized or suffer from chronic conditions, emotional instability and mental illness, and have lower levels of general physical functions. "Health is not just the absence of disease," insists Dr Ahmed. "It involves people's access to food, shelter, education and having a safe place to live. It makes an impact on individual health, but also on society."

Dr Ahmed and her colleague, nurse practitioner Sue Grafe, were inspired to start HHCPAP after attending a Hunger Clinic in Toronto last November. Volunteers from the Toronto chapter of Health Care Providers Against Poverty, which was formed last year, and the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty set up a makeshift clinic on the front lawn of the provincial legislature at Queen's Park to assess hundreds of people living on welfare and write the notes necessary for patients to qualify for the Special Diet Allowance of up to $250 given to social assistance recipients. Anti-poverty groups discovered this little-known allowance and urged Ontarians on welfare and their health providers to get on board. Unfortunately, due to the overwhelming demand — the government forked over $11.6 million in October alone — the province amended the allowance and restricted access in November.

But by then Dr Ahmed and Ms Grafe were already on the case. "We were really excited by what we saw," says Dr Ahmed. "It was great to see what's happening in Toronto, but we realized that we have to do something about our own issues here in Hamilton."

Hamilton Health Care Workers Against Poverty's first meeting on March 22 was well attended by family physicians, nurses, psychiatrists, paramedics and medical students. "The first meeting was about sharing ideas," says Dr Ahmed. "We don't want to force the Toronto agenda, but focus on establishing objectives for us specifically, as healthcare providers in Hamilton."

The HHCPAP aims to educate its members and other healthcare providers on the issues surrounding poverty and healthcare. They also want to concentrate on advocating for adequate access to services, such as prescription drugs and the provincial government's special diet subsidy. The group hopes to follow in the steps of the Toronto chapter of HCPAP and their Hunger Clinic to help put extra dollars in the pockets of their patients who need it — which can often make the difference between hunger and health.

Dr Ahmed hopes the organization will serve as a launch pad for healthcare providers to share their experiences and expertise, as well as establish ties to other community organizations. Although the first meeting was restricted to healthcare providers, the organization is forming relationships with a numb er of anti-poverty groups. "We want to bring the voice of healthcare providers to the movement," says Dr Ahmed. "Anti-poverty groups are thrilled to have us involved because they see us as having an inside track in the system."

"We don't want to be bleeding hearts," says Dr Ahmed. "We want to use the scientific knowledge that we were trained with. We want to use science to make connections between health and poverty and the research that shows that many health problems are directly linked to poverty."



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