March 31, 2014

A team at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto is working to curb the financial ailments of its low-income patients and help people realize that health is relative to wealth.

"The health-wealth gradient has been found time and time again," said Dr. Andrew Pinto, a member of St. Michael's family health team and Centre for Research on Inner City Health.

"People who are poor have worse health and now we need intervention to actually do something about it."

Pinto said the family health team at St. Michael's has a cache of about 33,000 patients of which more than half come from low-income neighbourhoods.

"There is a really close correlation between certain neighbourhoods and the average income," he said.

Starting in May, a team at St. Michael's will launch a project to further understand how the health care system can promote financial stability in patients.

Over the course of two years, low-income patients will visit regularly with a health promoter, learn financial management skills and gather an understanding of how wealth affects health.

"Part of it is because money allows you so much more freedom around certain things, from what you eat to how you spend your time to access to service to also your ability to negotiate and advocate for yourself in the health care system," said Pinto, who will lead the research project.

"Even in our universal system we know that people who have a stronger voice and are better able to advocate for themselves are actually able to access certain services at a higher rate."

Along with helping the test subjects over the next two years, St. Michael's hopes to develop a model for other primary health care services to integrate financial literacy into their care.

Funding for the project is coming from a $95,000 TD Financial Literacy Grant, one of 19 grants recently distributed by Social and Enterprise Development Innovations (SEDI).

"Our mission is expanding economical opportunities for Canadians living in poverty," said SEDI CEO Elizabeth Mulholland.


"Since starting up (the financial literacy grants) we've found that many Canadians actually have low levels of financial literacy. But the impact on people living in poverty is actually much worse because they have very little room for error in managing their finances. So the consequences can be quite severe if they make a mistake."

Mulholland criticized the education system for not effectively teaching youth about finances.

"It just hasn't been part of the school curriculum, although that is starting to change in a number of provinces including Ontario," she said. "Also the financial marketplace has gotten a lot more complex in our lifetime."


That's what Catholic Family Services in Hamilton will focus on with its grant, which is also about $95,000. CFS will use the grant to host financial educational programs, tentatively called Skills for Success, in the Hamilton area including an after-school program.

In addition to targeting students specifically, Catholic Family Services will also host family education events, where both adults and children will learn financial management skills.

Although the project at St. Michael's Hospital and in Hamilton may seem like two completely different means of curbing poverty, they are seeking the same ends, said Mulholland.