Australia’s health shame

Australia’s reputation as a healthy nation is unravelling, with a new report revealing that almost half the population lives with a chronic disease.

Health policy expert Ben Harris analysed National Health Survey data and found that 11.4 million Australians have a chronic disease.

The country may have one of the highest life expectancies in the world, but if the trend of preventable chronic diseases – particularly obesity – continues, then life expectancy rates may suffer.

Chronic disease numbers have risen sharply in the last decade – up from two in five just 10 years ago. More shocking is that around a third of these diseases are preventable, “yet we only spend 1.3 per cent of our health budget on preventing disease”, says Mr Harris.

“We need to do better with prevention and managing chronic disease. We need to start treating people, rather than treating diseases.”

Heart disease, diabetes, cancer, asthma, mental health and dementia are all categorised as chronic disease. Most of these conditions can be prevented, or at least treated in the early stages to prevent them from ‘snowballing’ into a more serious health condition.

However, GP Marek Steiner says the system isn’t properly geared towards prevention and is concerned about the future load on the health system.

“The current system doesn’t really allow us to focus on ongoing proper care for patients over time,” Dr Steiner told 7.30.

“With people with chronic conditions, we certainly want to spend a little bit more time.

“We are going to be overwhelmed with patients with chronic need; they won’t get the care they need, simple as that. This system has to change.

“When you are faced with a chronic medical condition, we certainly have a two-tiered system for those who have money and those who don’t have money, and there is a big gap there.”

Australia’s chief medical officer, Professor Brendan Murphy, says that obesity is Australia’s biggest health crisis.

“I think it is fair to call it a crisis,” he said.

“We’re quite high up in the shame scale internationally of obesity – nearly a third of our population are obese and nearly two-thirds are overweight or obese.

“That is a massive challenge for us that requires a very significant multi-faceted approach in terms of nutrition, exercise and, particularly, attention to early childhood in my view.”

Preventing obesity would minimise the occurrences of other chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Health policy analyst at the Australian Health Care Reform Alliance, Ms Jennifer Doggett, says Australia’s healthcare system should be overhauled.

“Our health system was set up in an era when the biggest burden of healthcare was short-term acute problems like infectious diseases and injuries,” she said.

“We’re now in an era where the largest burden is for complex and chronic problems, where people need care from a range of different providers and over a long period of time.

“That’s something our health system is not able to do.”

Melbourne GP Lara Roeske says GPs don’t have enough time with patients to be able to help them properly.

“If you ask most GPs what their one big wish would be, it would be to spend more time with their patients in a way that is appropriately supported and subsidised,” she said.

“Some of the issues with managing these conditions is they often last for months or years; they’re not curable; they often involve a multi-pronged approach to management.

“If we can see patients before they become unwell, that is just a brilliant opportunity to start working through a list of risk factors that we know can set people up for chronic disease later on.”

The Government plans to fund a scheme to help people aged over 70 spend more time with their GPs, but Dr Roeske says this funding should apply to people of all ages.

“The best thing you can do for your health is be wealthy,” said health policy expert Mr Harris.

“We know that people with lower socio-economic means are more likely to have health risk factors and are more likely to die early from chronic disease.

“We know the wealthy communities do a lot better. Not only do they have fewer risk factors, they have less chronic disease and much greater access to healthcare.

“What we have in Australia is a universal health system, but it’s not necessarily a fair health system.”

Do you live with a chronic disease? Was it potentially preventable?

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Written by Leon Della Bosca

Publisher of YourLifeChoices – Australia's most-trusted and longest-running retirement website. A trusted voice on Australia's retirement landscape, including retirement income and planning, government entitlements, lifestyle and news and information relevant to Australians over 50. Leon has worked in publishing for more than 25 years and is also a travel writer and editor, graphic designer and photographer.

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