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Here comes the sun
Prevent the spring sunburn

May 13, 2019

With spring in full swing and summer still in the distance, it can be easy to forget the burning power of the sun.

And while the sun's rays can be harmful at any time of year, safety awareness becomes even more vital as the days grow longer and people spend more time outdoors.

Every year in May, the Canadian Dermatology Association (CDA) reminds people that while we're not yet basking in the dog days of summer, staying mindful of the sun is still extremely important.

They recommend the following:

Seek Shade

A day in mid-March has around 11.5 hours of sunlight. A day in early May has 15.

Now that the days are longer, our sun exposure also increases. But the hours between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. are the most dangerous time for sun exposure. When outdoors during these times, try to stay out of direct sunlight as much as possible.

Cover up

It feels great to ditch the snow pants and boots for shorts and sandals.

But since we're so used to the winter sun, our first long foray outside often results in our first sunburn of the year. Consider wearing lighter, summery materials that keep you cool while also keeping you covered.

Wear sunscreen

We've all heard of "SPF" when it comes to sunscreen. But what does it actually mean?

A sunscreen's Sun Protection Factor (SPF) shows how effective it is in blocking the sun's rays. An SPF of 30, for instance, blocks 30 times more UV rays than going without sunscreen.

Some sunscreens block ultraviolet A (UVA) rays, while others block ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. Use a sunscreen that blocks both – both types of rays are harmful to your health.

Some people feel that the chemicals in sunscreen are harmful. "There is strong scientific evidence of the adverse effects of UV exposure in contrast to the hypothetical negative effects of sunscreen on your health," the Canadian Dermatology Assocaiation says.

If you have sensitive skin or allergies, the CDA recommends wearing mineral sunscreen, which reflects (rather than absorbs) the sun's rays.

Sunscreen shouldn't be applied sparingly – the CDA recommends a palmful for each arm and leg, for instance. They also recommend reapplying frequently.

Ditch the tanning salon

On top of enjoying the fresh spring sun, it might be tempting to do a little indoor tanning to prepare for summer.

But the CDA cautions against tanning beds, noting that they can be up to 10 to 15 times more powerful than the sun in the middle of the day. On top of that, a tan offers very little sun protection – it only offers an SPF of about two to four, they say.

Check yourself

Skin cancer can be scary, but it can also be spotted. The CDA recommends following the "ABCDEs" when checking for melanoma:

  • Asymmetry – the shape of a mole is different on one side (not symmetrical)
  • Border – the edges of the mole are irregular, jagged and imprecise
  • Colour – the mole's colour varies with brown, black, red, grey or white areas
  • Diameter – the mole grows over time
  • Evolution – the mole has changed

The CDA recommends getting a partner to check areas you can't easily access, like your back or neck.

To learn more about sun safety, visit dermatology.ca.

Sign up for life
A physician's thoughts on organ donation

April 22, 2019

Every 36 hours, a Canadian dies while waiting for an organ transplant.

"People live longer now than they did even 50 years ago," says Dr. Faisal Siddiqui, a physician with Transplant Manitoba's Gift of Life program. "We have a lot of people who are reaching the end of their life, not because something has happened to them, but because their organs just can't survive."

But when Manitobans are asked if they would donate their organs after death to help someone else, nine out of 10 say yes, Dr. Siddiqui says.

"That's an amazing thing we have in our province," he adds. "Generous people who are willing to give."

In 2018, there were 22 Manitobans who donated their organs after death, and 26 living Manitobans who donated a kidney.

"We know there are hundreds of Manitobans who are waiting on dialysis, waiting for a kidney transplant," Dr. Siddiqui says. "Life changes quite a bit when you're required to go for dialysis three hours a day, for three days a week. It gets in the way of living a productive and successful life."

But organ donation can make enormous improvements in their lives, he says. "They can come off dialysis and live a long, healthy, productive life with minimal disruption."

For others, organ donation may be even more urgent, says Dr. Siddiqui.

"There are dozens of people who are waiting for other organs, including heart, lungs and liver," he says. "And if we don't have organs to offer them, then some of those people may die from their organ failure."

While Manitobans used to carry blue cards in their wallets to indicate their willingness to donate, Manitoba's system is now entirely online through signupforlife.ca.

"The cards were awesome, because they were a great way to share that information with people if you were unable to communicate," says Dr. Siddiqui. "The problem was that sometimes the card didn't make it with you."

The card could also fade in the decades after signing it, he adds.

To register online, you need your Personal Health Information Number (found on your Manitoba Health card), your name, and your date of birth as it appears on your card.

"[The online registry] gives you the chance to say, 'Yes, I want to donate if the situation arises,'" Dr. Siddiqui says.

In the event you are close to death and become eligible for organ donation, doctors will consult the signupforlife.ca database. While your family has the final say in whether your organs are donated, the information you provide on signupforlife.ca will help guide their choice.

"Unfortunately... families sometimes just don't know what their loved ones would want," Dr. Siddiqui says. "It's not the kind of dinner conversation that happens most times.

"When families kind of know what their family member wants, then it's much easier for them," he says. "They're not making a decision – they're simply honouring a wish that's already been decided for them."

There are popular misconceptions that may turn people off from donating, Dr. Siddiqui says.

"People think that physicians and treating teams sometimes change their approach if they think someone could be a donor," he says, "[but] it does not change what we do when we're taking care of people." Giving patients the best possible treatment is a promise physicians make when they undergo training, he adds.

People also fail to realize how specific the organ donation eligibility requirements are, he says.

"You are six times more likely to need an organ than to be an organ donor," he says. "I think if anyone asked you, 'If you needed an organ, would you want one?' the answer would be yes."

But at the end of the day, the choice to register as a donor is yours, Dr. Siddiqui says.

"Our goal is not to convince everyone to be a donor – our goal is to honour the wishes of the people who want to," he says. "But what I do want to make sure is that if you want to donate, if you think it's the right choice for you, go online and register. Talk to your family and friends, let them know what you'd want. I think there's a lot of interest in Manitoba to be generous people, and this is the kind of generosity that goes beyond our life and into someone else's life."

For more information, visit signupforlife.ca.

Austin's Disney World adventure
a Manitoba child gets his wish

March 18, 2019

For over 30 years, Manitoba Blue Cross has been joining forces with the Children's Wish Foundation and other Blue Cross plans across the country to provide wish children with the travel insurance necessary to make their dream trips come true.

Fifteen-year-old Austin is one of the many incredible children from Manitoba who have benefited from this partnership and was able to fulfill his wish of going to Disney World with his friends and family.

Austin is a resilient young man with microcephaly and spastic quadriplegia. He is severely developmentally delayed, non-verbal and has a cortical visual impairment. He was also diagnosed with a seizure disorder.

One word to describe Austin is amazing – he smiles and powers his way through days that would bring most of us to our knees. He loves anything that goes fast. He loves school and he adores his friends. He has been at the same school since kindergarten and has developed a very strong bond with many of the kids he has grown up with. He teaches and inspires them every day!

We were lucky to be able to speak with Austin's mother, Jacqueline, about his trip.

We hear Austin likes anything fast. Did Austin have any fast adventures on the trip?

Austin went on as many fast rides at Disney and Universal that he could, including one of the smaller roller coasters. His favourite was the Mad Hatter's Tea Party – and the spinning tea cups – we couldn't get them spinning as fast as we wanted, because Austin's dad was afraid though!

What was Austin's favourite part of the trip?

One of Austin's favourite parts was the morning we had breakfast at Disney and were joined by Mickey, Minnie and Goofy. They treated Austin like he was a celebrity, and Austin loved that!

We hear Austin brought his best friends along. What was that experience like?

Austin, Emmy and Alyssa had a blast together. Austin enjoyed having his two friends to hang out with every day, and they spoiled him – pushing him fast in his wheelchair, going on rides with him, hanging out at the pool. We all have such great memories from this week and still talk about it when we get together.

What is Austin's favourite Disney movie or character?

Well, I would have to say since Minnie told Austin at their breakfast together that she liked him better than Mickey – I think he has a little crush on Minnie right now!

What does Austin do for fun?

Austin really likes to be in the water, so we try to take him swimming whenever we can. He loves being outside and we go for lots of walks in the summer, although mom never can push him fast enough! He also enjoys music, Paw Patrol and spending time with his friends!

March is Children's Wish month! To celebrate, Blue Cross is holding a draw for a $5,000 travel voucher. Visit www.bluecrossiwish.ca by March 31 to enter.

Canada's 2019 food guide
A dietitian's thoughts

March 11, 2019

When dietitian Dina Daniello-Santiago saw Canada's new food guide, she was taken aback.

"It's kind of shocking that the rainbow's gone," she says.

A nutritional counsellor with our Assistance Program, Dina's referring to the classic food rainbow – yellow for grains, green for vegetables and fruit, blue for milk and alternatives, and red for meat and alternatives. If you went through primary school after 1992, when it was first introduced, you might have seen the rainbow graphic in health class.

But two food guides and 27 years later, the rainbow has vanished. It's been replaced with a photo of a dinner plate.

Fruit and vegetables take up half the plate, with the other half split between protein foods and whole grains.

This means that the traditional four food groups have also disappeared.

These radical changes are part of the government's new Healthy Eating Strategy, which aims to improve healthy eating resources.

In many ways, the guide is a welcome change, Dina says.

"It does have a really fresh, clean look," she says. "It's a one-pager, so it's easy to follow."

Canada's food guide is no stranger to the one-page format. It dates back to 1942, when the food guide was introduced.

But at under 200 words, "Canada's Official Food Rules" looked quite a bit different to today's guide.

"It was almost a prescription for the population, because this was during wartime," Dina says. "Helping to reduce malnutrition – that was a key focus."

The first guide introduced six food groups – fruits and vegetables were separate groups, and eggs were their own group. Tomatoes and citrus fruits were emphasized. Eating liver, heart, or kidney was recommended once a week.

The number of servings was also smaller than later versions – to avoid food shortages, the initial guide represented 70 per cent of the recommended daily intake at the time.

Two years later, with the Second World War still raging, the government grew concerned with Canadians' riboflavin (vitamin B2) intake.

"The focus was ensuring that individuals were getting enough milk," Dina says.

For adults, the daily serving of milk went from half a pint to up to one pint (the metric system wasn't introduced in Canada until the 1970s). For children, it grew from "more than one pint" to "up to one quart."

Seventy-five years later, the role of milk has been all but eliminated from the guide.

"The [2019] food guide really lacks a focus on calcium, because the whole milk and alternatives group has been completely removed," she says. However, with part two of the guide aimed for release later in the year, we may get more support information later, she adds.

Support materials have been part of the food guide since the beginning. In 1942, materials included a series of leaflets, six lesson plans for teachers and a Score Sheet for One Day's Meals.

Today, resources are even more expansive. They include recipes, tips on prenatal nutrition, posters and healthy eating recommendations.

One of the main recommendations of the new guide is to eat mindfully.

"I really like how it emphasizes how to eat, not just what to eat," Dina says. "It's supporting a positive eating environment, which I think is really helpful and practical. There's a lot of talk now about being a mindful eater and eating with your family."

The guide also places a heavy emphasis on variety, with the healthy plate photo including several foods in each section.

The concept of variety was introduced in 1949's guide, but strongly implemented in the 1977 version.

But where the 1977 guide incorporated meat as a prominent quarter of its "food wheel" design, meat takes a backseat in 2019.

"I like the fact that it's encouraging more plant-based proteins," Dina says. "I try to encourage my clients to at least consume a plant-based meal once a week."

But while recommending plant-based meals is a step forward, past guides have included an important aspect that the new version lacks, Dina says.

"There really isn't any discussion in the [2019] food guide about physical activity," she says.

Incorporating a holistic approach – discussing how activity, stress and eating work together – would be a nice addition, Dina says.

Physical activity was a footnote in the 1992 guide but played a larger role in the 2007 version. The latter introduced a detailed, six-page booklet format, with different serving sizes for each demographic and more culturally diverse food choices.

"They saw that chronic illness was on the rise, obesity was on the rise, so people needed a little more guidance and direction," Dina says.

But not everyone was a fan of the longer, expansive format, Dina says.

"There was so much information on there," she says. "That confused everybody... People found it really hard to meet those serving sizes. It became a little bit too much."

The new dinner plate method is a nice improvement, because dietitians have been using it for years, Dina says.

"I use that in my practice very often, because it's just a good clear visual," she says. "People could relate to it a lot better than measuring portions."

But while the plate method is an improvement, it's still somewhat vague – and hopefully it's expanded on later in the year, Dina says.

At the end of the day, the food guide is just that – a guide, she adds.

"Healthy eating is flexible, and it should be fun and intuitive," she says. "There's not just one way to eat.

"That's why dietitians are here. Because we understand that nothing is just cookie cutter for the population... And the food guide isn't going to meet everybody's needs. So we kind of have to take that and tailor it and adapt it to individuals."

For more information about Canada's food guide, visit the new food guide page.

For more information about dietitians, including more healthy eating resources, visit Dietitians of Canada.

To find out if nutritional counselling with our Employee Assistance Program is included in your benefit plan, visit your mybluecross online account.

Fighting hunger
Proud to support Winnipeg Harvest

February 18, 2019

Six days a week, fifteen Winnipeg Harvest trucks gather donated, quality food from retail partners. Collectively, they make nearly 1,000 pickups a month, distributing food to over 400 agencies across the province.

These donations, supplied by generous shoppers and waste-conscious retailers, make up a large portion of the food that Winnipeg Harvest receives and serves to the nearly 64,000 Manitobans that rely on food banks every month.

The food that shoppers donate to store bins is vital, says Winnipeg Harvest CEO Keren Taylor-Hughes. "That's a big part of how we have food to distribute," she says.

But the need for food is growing. From 2008 to 2016, Manitoba's food bank usage grew 53 per cent. Over 40 per cent of those served are children. With an increasing need for more food banks around the city, Winnipeg Harvest faces a higher demand for food deliveries.

To help ease this demand, Manitoba Blue Cross has sponsored a new food delivery truck, the sixteenth in the fleet. We are pleased that the truck is now on the road, and we're able to help fight hunger one delivery at a time.

"Having a new vehicle makes a huge difference to us," says Taylor-Hughes. "We try to maximize our routes and leverage all the resources we have. But sometimes we just need another vehicle to ensure we can get to food banks on time."

While the truck is our latest contribution, Manitoba Blue Cross has been supporting Winnipeg Harvest for years. Since 2015, we've participated in Grow-A-Row, growing food on our rooftop and donating around 100 pounds each year.

We also donated 500 pounds of food during last spring's food drive, and we supported last fall's Empty Bowls Soup-er Lunch.

But while food donations are critical, Winnipeg Harvest couldn't operate without committed volunteers.

In 2017, volunteers donated 166,245 hours of their time – equivalent to 80 full-time jobs. They do everything from driving trucks to sorting food to coordinating events.

"Whether you're four or ninety-four, there's always a role, says Taylor-Hughes. "That's the beautiful thing about Harvest – everyone can help."

Last year these volunteers helped Winnipeg Harvest move over 11 million pounds of food – the equivalent of around one thousand African elephants.

But Winnipeg Harvest's role doesn't end there, says Taylor-Hughes.

"We're much more than a food bank," she says. "Our number one business is collecting and distributing food, but we really try to train and empower people to get them back into the workforce."

Winnipeg Harvest's continually expanding training programs include custodial, customer service, warehouse and kitchen skills. By the time a client is finished an approximately two-month program, they're prepared to look for work at one of Harvest's large retail partners.

It's another way for Winnipeg Harvest to accomplish their ultimate vision – a community that no longer requires the services of a food bank.

To learn more about Winnipeg Harvest – including how to donate food, money or your time, visit Winnipeg Harvest's website.

Talking to a professional
February is Psychology Month

February 11, 2019

More people with mental health concerns are getting professional help, a 2018 survey says.

The 4th Annual Canadian Mental Health Checkup, conducted by Ipsos, measured Canadians' mental health and attitudes toward mental health.

With February being Psychology Month, we spoke to a psychologist in our Assistance Program about talking to a professional.

"We all sometimes need a little help," says Dr. Leigh Quesnel. A clinical psychologist, Dr. Leigh specializes in psychotherapy and workplace issues.

While we used to think of mental health and physical health as independent from one another, they're actually inseparable, Dr. Leigh says.

"Mental health is health," he adds.

"Your mind has a significant impact on your body's functioning, and in turn, your body's functioning has a significant impact on the mind," he says. "Psychologists are as significant to health as physical health caregivers."

Sixteen per cent of Canadians surveyed said they spoke to a professional (a counsellor, psychologist or psychiatrist) about their mental health in the past year. This is the same percentage as 2017, but it's five per cent higher than in 2015.

"The stigma is reduced in many, many respects," Dr. Leigh says.

Forty-five per cent of Canadians said they're more comfortable discussing mental health now than two years ago, according to the survey. And 57 per cent think Canadians as a whole are more comfortable speaking about mental health than years prior.

The trick to reducing the stigma is being more open about seeking help, says Dr. Leigh.

"We don't tell everyone we're seeing a physician, but we also don't hide the fact that we are seeing a physician," he says. "The stigma declines as we observe that more and more people are seeing psychologists."

While the stigma is shrinking, financial circumstance is still the largest obstacle, with 64 per cent of respondents reporting money is a problem when thinking about seeking help.

While professionals can be expensive, you may be able to access counselling as part of your Manitoba Blue Cross coverage.

We have an exclusive network of multidisciplinary providers located throughout the province, and we're the only health coverage provider to have an on-site Assistance Centre. Intake is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Counselling sessions are included in many group plans and several of our individual plans. To find out if you have Assistance Program coverage, visit mybluecross or talk to your plan administrator.

No matter the reason, some people may be wary or nervous to approach a professional.

"They should be far more afraid of living less fully than of visiting me or any other psychologist," says Dr. Leigh. "Do it scared and call it excitement."

And working through problems with a psychologist isn't easy, he adds.

"[People] should expect that any effort to improve oneself, to enhance the quality of one's life, to enhance one's wellbeing... will come with some challenges," he says. "It will come with an honest evaluation of where one is at, where one has been going, and what changes are needed, if any."

But while it can be difficult, getting help is worth it, Dr. Leigh says.

"It is, for the very most part, a very productive venture."

To learn more about our Assistance Program, visit our Employee Assistance page.

More than winter blues
Seasonal affective disorder

January 28, 2019

With chilling winds, drifting snow and dreary nights, it's easy to get the winter blues.

But while winter can be difficult for many of us, it can be even tougher for people with seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

What is seasonal affective disorder?

SAD is a type of seasonal depression that mostly occurs during the fall and winter months. However, it's also been known to affect some people during late spring and early summer.

The main symptom of SAD is a despairing mood that is present most of the day, occurs most days, lasts for more than two weeks and impairs daily life, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

They also list other symptoms, including:

  • Sleep problems
  • Changes in appetite and weight
  • Loss of interest in work, hobbies, people or sex
  • Withdrawal from social connections
  • Feeling useless, guilty, hopeless, pessimistic, or hard on oneself
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Trouble concentrating, remembering and making decisions

In extreme cases, SAD can even cause suicidal thoughts and a loss of touch with reality.

People who are affected by SAD in the summer may experience different symptoms (e.g. insomnia instead of excess sleep).

What causes SAD?

While the cause of SAD is unconfirmed, one factor may be the brain's pineal gland. This gland secretes melatonin, a hormone that controls sleep.

When darkness hits, the pineal gland secretes melatonin to prepare us for sleep. When sunlight hits our eyes in the morning, the pineal gland stops secreting melatonin, preparing us for wakefulness.

Many Manitobans who have typical work or school hours wake up before the winter sun rises. This means that melatonin production takes longer to wind down. If you find it hard to wake up in the colder months, melatonin may be why.

Many of us are also confined indoors at school or work during daylight hours, which means we may lose exposure to direct sunlight for days at a time.

Among others, these factors contribute to the development of SAD. And you don't need to have had depression or other mental illnesses to be affected.

How is SAD treated?

Treatment is based on severity, but it typically involves light therapy. Patients sit next to full-spectrum white lights, which simulate sunlight.

Exercise is also recommended, and it's even more effective when combined with sunlight (for instance, using an exercise bike while next to a light box, or jogging outside on a lunch break).

In cases where symptoms are severe, antidepressant medication may be considered.

If you think you might have seasonal affective disorder, please consult a doctor.

To learn more about seasonal affective disorder, see the CAMH website.

Survey shows Canadians are confident in travel coverage

January 15, 2019

Canadians are confident in travel insurance and positive about their coverage experience, a recent survey says.

Ninety-three per cent of respondents that filed claims within the last year said their claims were either fully (71 per cent of respondents) or partially paid (22 per cent of respondents), reports Pollara Strategic Insights, the research firm behind the survey. Five per cent of claims were still being processed at survey time, while two per cent were denied.

This is consistent with numbers from 2015, the last time the survey was conducted.

"With the purchase of travel coverage comes the hope that it will never be needed," says Nikki Makar, Individual Benefits Consultant at Manitoba Blue Cross. "The reality is that unexpected injuries and illnesses do arise – and fortunately, we see that the vast majority of claims are paid and adjudicated in a timely manner."

Around one third of Canadians bought travel insurance in the past year, and nine per cent of those filed a claim, according to the survey.

Ninety-one per cent of claimants said they were satisfied with the overall claim experience.

"When clients buy the appropriate coverage, it makes sense that they'll be satisfied with their claim," Nikki says. "Working with our broker partners, we ensure customers are given the information and tools they need to purchase the appropriate coverage and if needed, to file a complete claim."

Canadians are also knowledgeable about what they're buying, the survey says. Eighty-nine per cent of respondents said they had at least a reasonable amount of knowledge of their policy's terms, and 83 per cent said they knew who to contact in the event of an emergency.

"Over the past few years, we've extended our efforts to ensure people are knowledgeable about their policies," says Nikki. "We are committed to working toward providing customers with as much information as possible so they can make informed decisions about their travel coverage before purchase, during the trip, and, if a claim is incurred, after the policy ends."

To learn more about Manitoba Blue Cross travel coverage, view our Travel Coverage Plans.