Absurdity and evidence: as told to national workshop

by Mark Metherell, CHF Communications Director

For all its strength, absurdities do haunt Australia’s health “system”. It was this subject which made for a cracking start to CHF’s national workshop this week.

Veteran News Ltd health editor, Sue Dunlevy, kick-started the workshop convened to discuss the consumers’ role in health at a time of change.

The two-day meeting in Melbourne heard a flood of ideas to boost the consumers’ role and improve health care. It made for a refreshing contrast to the Medicare co-payment debate which is clouding the future of health care.

Dunlevy opened her speech by comparing the outcomes of two elderly relatives both with health insurance and both in need of hospital care for serious illness.  One chose a public hospital where she was admitted and treated promptly at no direct cost.  The other went to a private hospital, and having paid insurance premiums all her life, found herself shelling out tens of thousands of dollars for services not fully covered by either Medicare or her health fund.

Dunlevy went on to make the point that our hybrid system swings from public to private emphasis with each change of government.  The problem with ideology, she said, was that what worked in general rarely ever works in the particular, especially with health care.

So how does an organisation like CHF cope with “yoyo policy” changes?  Dunlevy’s response: Produce the evidence that highlights the flaws.

Evidence presented by speakers to the 80-odd who attended the workshop left many with a refreshed sense of the strength and potential of the consumer voice in our health system.

Western Sydney’s primary health champion, Dr Di O’Halloran, urged CHF to press for the importance of local consumer and community involvement at all levels of the new primary health network structure. Noni Bourke from Peninsula Health and Laura Elkin, Aboriginal Advocacy Manager from Perth, gave insights into their experience with generating consumer awareness.

Public Health Association’s CEO, Michael Moore, said the axing of preventive health and hospital growth funding and the impending demise of Medicare Locals had left a gap in program delivery and highlighted the need for advocacy to improve understanding of the impact of the cuts, challenge “reactionary thinking” and recognise the social determinants of health.

There was evidence of a new dynamic of consumer influence in health care.  We heard from CHF’s Donna Stephenson about principles of consumer-centered care, and from Dr Jenny May and Jan Donovan about the CHF-developed Real People Real Data tool to bring consumer evidence to health decisions.  The National Health Performance Authority’s Tricia Linehan and Adam Cresswell demonstrated how to use the swathe of data on local health outcomes and Professor Michael Greco spoke on the consumer-empowering Patient Opinion project.

Day Two opened with the heavy hitters talking on the general theme “Seven ideas to replace the $7 co-payment”.  Professor Stephen Duckett’s seven tips included:  Don’t panic and cut waste before cutting access or quality.  Health service waste guru Associate Professor Adam Elshaug, identified high-cost but often inappropriate procedures. Consumer health analyst, Jennifer Doggett, took a witty look at the “Seven Wonders of Health Funding”, including “the Colossal Health Funding Myth”, showing how health expenditure has remained stable in Australia. Professor Andrew Podger said he did not necessarily oppose co-payments but the current un-offset proposal was the wrong way to go.

Using social media to support consumer representation was another session which showed many of us just how connected we can be in boosting the ideas and influence of consumers. Pioneering Croakey blog founder, Melissa Sweet, along with switched on social media exponents Melissa CadzowDelia Scales and Justin Coleman, “GP transparency campaigner”, took the conference to new horizons.

The last session featured a top grade consumer health line-up: Alison Marcus, Dr Christine Walker, Debra Kay and Deb Smith, all of whom spoke with authority on the theme of managing motivation through times of change.

One thing we know in consumer health is there will always be change: the trick is to learn how to make the best of it, as Christine Walker advised.

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About the author

Mark Metherell

Mark Metherell joined the Consumers Health Forum of Australia as Communications Manager in February 2013. Previously he was the Canberra based health correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald, a position he held since 1999. He was also medical reporter for the Age in the 1980s. In a newspaper career spanning 40 years, he has held a variety of other posts including news editor and defence and foreign affairs correspondent.