Preventative health makes economic sense

Labo’s first major health policy announcement in this federal election year focuses on preventing illness and recognising the economic impact of poor health.

Kevin Rudd has released his plan to develop a national strategy to tackle chronic diseases caused by obesity, tobacco and alcohol – a plan that will be closely linked to Labor’s economic policy.

Labor says that while the failure to tackle chronic disease represents a cost, the benefits of better addressing chronic disease represent an economic opportunity.

The reasoning underpinning Labor’s plan is backed up by figures in a national survey released by Tony Abbott’s portfolio. This report shows heart conditions cause 317,000 admissions, respiratory problems 206,000 admissions and obstetrics 307,000 admissions to our public hospitals each year. Patients with these conditions occupy beds for a staggering total of 2,880,000 days.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, almost one in ten hospital admissions could have been avoided with better preventative care. An incredible 552,000 Australians were taken to hospital in just one year for conditions that could have been avoided.

Time to end the blame game

Only 1.7% of recurrent national health expenditure in 2004-2005 was spent on health promotion and prevention.

Labor’s health spokeswoman Nicola Roxon argues the Commonwealth’s failure to invest in preventative care leaves the states bearing the cost.

‘The major health agreements negotiated between the Commonwealth and the states deal only with hospitals and there are some disincentives to the states and Commonwealth actually investing money in prevention,’ she said.

‘We want both prevention and hospital care along with a number of other issues to be on the table for those negotiations, so every health dollar and every level of government is actually looking at how we can keep people well and not just treat them when they are sick.’

What Labor is proposing

  • A National Preventative Healthcare Strategy would be established to bring a preventative focus to the health system. The strategy will be supported by a permanent taskforce of nurses, doctors, allied health professionals, academics, consumers, health insurers and specialists who would provide evidence-based advice.
  • Incentives would be provided for GPs to practise quality preventative health care with an increased focus on multi-disciplinary care from primary care teams.
  • Health care agreements would be broadened between the Commonwealth and the states to include preventative health care as well as hospital funding.
  • Treasury would be commissioned to produce special reports on the impact of chronic disease on the Australian economy and the economic benefits of prevention in health care.

The economic costs of chronic disease

  • The Productivity Commission has estimated that health conditions such as cancer, cardiovascular, mental and nervous conditions, injury and diabetes reduce labour force participation rates by between 12% and 40%.
  • The annual financial cost of cardiovascular disease in Australia is $14.2 billion or 1.7% of GDP, including lost productivity costs of $3.6 billion.
  • The estimated costs of diabetes each year is around $21 billion including lost productivity, health and carer costs, taxation revenue lost and welfare payments.
  • The annual productivity loss from obesity-related illness is about $1.7 billion.
  • The Commission says with modest investments in health promotion and prevention, as many as 175,000 additional people could be in the workforce by 2030.

Health professionals back Labor’s plan

NSWNA General Secretary Brett Holmes said, ‘This approach is forward thinking and commendable. It will take pressure off our hospitals and centre health care in our communities where it is most effective.’

AMA President Dr Rosanna Capolingua said: ‘Overall this looks like a well-thought-out strategy to juggle the competing demands of a health budget and the community’s increasing health needs.’

Cancer Council chief executive Professor Ian Oliver said: ‘Prevention is always better than cure and the Opposition’s announcement heralds the kind of change in approach Australia needs to reduce the burden of cancer.’

The Australian General Practice Network, Public Health Association of Australia, Catholic Health Australia, Medicines Australia and the Mental Health Council of Australia also support Labor’s plan.

Nurses give Rudd’s aged care plan qualified support

Kevin Rudd has announced that a Labor government would spend $158 million over five years on alternative care for aged patients currently occupying public hospital beds.

The plan envisages 2,000 new ‘transition care beds’ for the aged who are in public hospitals waiting for a place in an aged care facility.

Labor has also pledged an extra $300 million in loans to build or expand residential and respite facilities in areas of need.

NSWNA General Secretary Brett Holmes welcomed the proposals but said the initiatives need to be complemented with appropriate numbers of extra nurses.

‘The number of qualified registered nurses and enrolled nurses employed in aged care has dropped by 21% since 1995, despite an increase in resident numbers,’ he said.

‘Increased bed numbers are a step forward but an improvement in quality care will require a corresponding increase in adequately qualified nursing staff.’

The NSWNA would also like to see Labor commit to improvements in the aged care workforce through:

  • the establishment of dedicated funding to close the wages gap. Nurses in aged care currently earn up to $20,000 per annum or $250 per week less than their colleagues in other areas;
  • the licensing of all direct care staff; and
  • the establishment of minimum nursing staff levels and an appropriate skill mix of direct care staff, registered and enrolled nurses throughout the aged care workforce.

We need to attract more nurses to aged care

Rosemary Chester, Executive Manager at Orana Nursing Home, says more resources and preventative strategies for aged care are welcome but attracting more nurses to the sector is vital.

‘Maintenance of health and well being for our aged population is important. Attracting and retaining registered and enrolled nurses to provide for aged people in the community and in residential facilities is an imperative deserving of improvement.’