Prevalence of winter migration to warmer destinations among Ontarians ("snowbirds") and patterns of their use of health care services: a population-based analysis

CMAJ Open. 2021 May 14;9(2):E491-E499. doi: 10.9778/cmajo.20200270. Print Apr-Jun 2021.

Abstract

Background: Older Canadians frequently migrate to warmer destinations for the winter season (snowbirds). Our aim was to examine the prevalence of migration to warmer destinations among Ontarians, and to compare the characteristics and use of health care services of snowbirds to those of older Ontarians who did not migrate for the winter.

Methods: We conducted a population-based analysis using health administrative databases from Ontario. We compiled 10 seasonal cohorts (2009/10 to 2018/19) of adults aged 65 or more who filled a travel supply of medications under the Ontario Drug Benefits program (snowbirds) between September and January (snowbird season). We calculated the seasonal prevalence of snowbirds per 100 Ontarians aged 65 or more. We matched each snowbird in the 2018/19 season to 2 nonsnowbirds on age and sex, and compared their characteristics and patterns of use of government-funded health care services.

Results: Over the 10-year period, 53 431 to 70 863 Ontarians aged 65 or more were identified as snowbirds (seasonal prevalence 2.6%-3.3%). Compared to nonsnowbirds, snowbirds were more likely to be recent migrants, live in higher-income neighbourhoods, have fewer comorbidities and make more visits to primary care physicians. From January to March 2019, snowbirds accessed government-funded health care services for a median of 0 days (interquartile range [IQR] 0-1 d), compared to 4 days (IQR 2-8 d) among nonsnowbirds.

Interpretation: About 3% of older Ontarians migrate to warmer destinations for the winter each season. Since few access health care services in Ontario from January to March, researchers are encouraged to consider the snowbird population and the impact of their absence on evaluations that assume continuous observation.