Health a No. 1 concern requiring national leadership

This Op-ed first appeared in Fairfax outlets on the 6th of January, 2017. Read it in the Canberra Times here.

Australia's healthcare horizon is rapidly changing. We face significant challenges at the same time as pressure for reform and innovation grows.

In an era when the economic focus seems relentlessly concerned with national debt, our political leaders need to recognise the value of the national health as very many voters do. For the past nine elections, health has been viewed as a top concern of Australians and in the last election was clearly the issue most likely to worry voters, according to analysis of the exhaustive data collected by the ANU's Australian Election Study released recently.

In its 2017 budget submission, the Consumers Health Forum is calling for the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) to develop a National Vision for Australia's Health 2025 that sets out a coherent basis for a continued high standard, equitable health system that exploits the advances of contemporary knowledge and technology.

We also press the federal government to move away from the current budgetary requirement for all new health expenditures to be offset by savings in the health portfolio.

The Health Minister, Sussan Ley, has shown on a variety of fronts that she is prepared to confront long-ignored challenges in the health system, such as the need to reset primary healthcare, private health insurance, pharmacy and the Medicare Benefits Schedule. Well-managed changes will include both costs and savings and importantly ensure quality and equitable healthcare. Balancing health system priorities will not be easy and we recognise the fiscal challenges in ensuring Medicare continues to offer realistic benefits for patient care. But it needs to be recognised that a national health system is not worth the name if it props up health insurance while failing to serve the interests of the majority without health cover.

What is needed now is the national leadership and the resources to make the right investments to maximise Australia's health.

This system should be one which supports consumers to take control of their care through engaging them in shared and informed decision making. Through strengthening and adequately resourcing a primary-care backbone to our system, we will shift the preoccupation from hospitals back to timely and resource-efficient preventive care. The world's highest performing health systems have activated patients who engage with primary care first – Australia should be one of these systems.

Evidence-based and well-resourced health systems improve national productivity, and are more cost-effective and equitable. Over time, moving to models of care which promote services being integrated will benefit consumers. Integrated care which puts the needs of people and communities, not diseases, at the centre of health systems and empowers consumers to take charge of their own health will spur practical and local health and social care solutions.

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About the author

Leanne Wells

Leanne Wells

Chief Executive of the Consumers Health Forum of Australia