Is Australia’s health system failing?

The Grattan Institute has released the results of a comprehensive study that identifies hotspots of health inequality throughout Australia, showing that the nation’s health system is failing in some communities.

The report, Perils of place: identifying hotspots of health inequalities, shows that hospitalisation rates for asthma, diabetes, poor ear, nose and throat health, dental health problems and other conditions are at least 50 per cent above average in some communities throughout Queensland and Victoria – all health conditions that should be preventable or manageable before hospitalisation becomes necessary.

The report worked by identifying small ‘hotspots’ where inequalities in community health are ingrained and likely to stay the same unless the Government intervenes. Communities such as Frankston North, Melton, Cranbourne and Broadmeadows in Victoria, and Yarrabah, Carpentaria, Mount Isa and Palm Island in Queensland showed high hospitalisation rates for otherwise treatable conditions for most of the past decade.

The report suggests that by targeting these hotspots and keeping people out of hospitals, the Government could save at least $15 million each year in direct costs to the health system. It also suggests that the indirect benefits created by increased workplace participation, improved wellbeing and neighbourhood renewal could be significantly larger.

“Because persistent hotspots are rare, targeting them alone will not substantially reduce the growing burden of potentially preventable hospitalisations, but it’s an important first step,” said the Grattan Institute’s Health Program Director Dr Stephen Duckett.

The report suggests that the Government team up with primary health networks and local communities to organise three- to five-year trials of tailored health programs in selected areas, then apply them throughout Australia.

According to Mr Duckett: “Government and primary health networks must ensure that all communities get a fair go. The Government will save money and, more importantly, some of the most disadvantaged Australians will get the chance to lead healthier, more productive lives.”

Read the Grattan Institute media release

Opinion: Does low income mean low healthcare?

It may come as no surprise that people who live in struggling communities receive a lower level of health are, but if the Government wants to rein in soaring future health costs, it needs to address this inequality now.

I grew up in Frankston at a time when it was a burgeoning community, with many young families moving there because of its affordability and, at the time, adequate amenities.

In the nineties, a drug problem swept through the town, creating issues for the community and putting pressure on an increasingly stretched healthcare system. It’s a problem that still hasn’t been resolved. Add to that the resulting mental health and drug dependence issues, the multitude of young families with children, the many single mothers and older Australians that require health care and counselling, and you have the type of hotspot described by the Grattan Institute report.

As of March 2016, Frankston had an unemployment rate of 6.1 per cent, which is the lowest it’s been in three years. Only one year ago it was as high as 8.3 per cent. The average individual income in Frankston is $517 per week with an average household income at around $954 per week. Considering median rent in the area is $256 per week and average mortgage costs are $1495 per month – both figures a little under half the average income – and you begin to see how the cost of living may prevent an individual being able to afford adequate healthcare, let alone access it.

And this is but a snapshot of the type of communities the Grattan Institute has covered in its study. Communities with residents on low incomes, high welfare rates and low employment are simply not able to access the type of healthcare that is required. And these issues become compounded and end up costing the health system a lot more in the long run because they weren’t satisfactorily addressed early enough.

These communities do need a tailored approach – not all situations can be dealt with by merely throwing money at them. The Grattan Institute’s recommendation that the Government work with local health centres and community groups is sensible. After all, nobody knows these communities better than the health professionals who work there.

As the report suggests, not only will the Government save money, but it will also save the lives of many disadvantaged Australians, by getting them back to work, helping them sort out their mental health and general wellbeing and having them involved in their communities.

The Government could also help by addressing housing affordability and wages, as well as looking at increasing welfare payments to acceptable levels. But where does it find the money to cover such costs? Well, it can start by hacking into the top end, chasing corporate tax evaders and minimising tax shelters for the wealthy.

The report may only cover areas in Queensland and Victoria, but it implies a much wider problem across the country. If the Government is serious about fixing the nation’s health care system and making it more efficient, then a tailored approach to solving local community health issues should be a high priority.

Do you live in any of these areas? Have you noticed declining health in your neighbourhood? Would you like to see an individual approach to solving health issues specific to your area?

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Written by Leon Della Bosca

Leon Della Bosca has worked in publishing and media in one form or another for around 25 years. He's a voracious reader, word spinner and art, writing, design, painting, drawing, travel and photography enthusiast. You'll often find him roaming through galleries or exploring the streets of his beloved Melbourne and surrounding suburbs, sketchpad or notebook in hand, smiling.
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