Raising important questions and reservations about the proposed medical research fund

The idea of a $20 billion medical research endowment fund being financed by new imposts on the sick will seem dark farce to the many health consumers already struggling with rising out of pocket health costs.

The Consumers Health Forum strongly supports an expansion of medical R&D in Australia.  There are good grounds to suggest that Australia could develop a much stronger bio-medical industry, but there are more clever ways for it to be funded.

The track record of many existing enterprises, not least CSL, Cochlear and ResMed – all now multi-billion dollar world leaders in their fields – largely as a result of Australian-born and bred ideas, point to the potential.

However, the nature of the latest budget plan fuels the suspicion that this research El Dorado is more wish list than reality and was pulled out of the Prime Minister’s hat to divert attention from the real pain of $8.5 billion in health cuts over the next four years.

If we accept that there will be a significant boost to health research as a result of these co-payments from the ill, let’s hope that one priority will be to deliver real benefits to health consumers now.

Paradox of medical research

The paradox of medical research is that while we all agree it has transformed health care, there is now a vast body of findings and evidence-based knowledge ready to exploit immediately if there were the funding and right support.

Further investment in medical research would likely widen the chasm between medical science and advanced treatments.

Would it save the lives of those who will be investing a minimum of $7 every time they see a GP and $5 more for a prescription?

The previous Government’s wide-ranging McKeon Review into health and medical research, which gets a brief mention in Budget papers, found greater investment is needed for researchers, clinicians and patients/consumers to take the research journey together.

But there is no mention of this critical partnership that has the power to transform lives and more than likely reduce costs to government, insurers and consumers.

The Treasurer said after the budget that the $20 billion research fund would “save lives”. The question is when?  In 10-40 years? Which is how long it takes for research to make a difference to the lives of Australians.

Make better use of the existing research evidence

We actually don’t need fresh research findings to start saving lives straightaway. We have evidence stockpiling in journals that is not seeing the light of day because of the lack of funding and incentives to translate ideas into action.

The evidence is already in showing for instance, that treating people with raised blood pressure could reduce strokes and heart disease but of those who need treatment only 25 per cent of them achieve normal levels.

The potential for significant improvements in hospital outcomes can be as prosaic as washing hands.  A well-resourced drive to improve hospital hand hygiene would save thousands of avoidable and costly infections.  In some hospitals doctors are following hand wash protocols only 30 to 50 per cent of the time.

Patients leaving hospital after a coronary episode can have their mortality halved with the right rehabilitation, medicines and lifestyle changes. But the uptake or availability of such programs is less than 50 per cent.

The effort to maximise the benefits of medical research needs to involve consumers in making decisions about where the money should be invested.

Is cancer more worthy than diabetes, dementia more worthy than stroke? Do we invest more in prevention, rather than end of life care?

The answers are not black and white, but it is time that consumers, who will be footing the bill for this research, to be included in the debate and development of research investment strategies.

Worryingly, the science behind this health budget leaves the impression that the $20 billion block buster has been rolled out while immediate, do-able challenges are ceased or defunded in the name of budget frugality.

The Medicare supporters rightly see this budget as diluting the principle of universal access.

Failure to address reform priorities

While introducing co-payments that will hit the poor hardest and slashing public hospital funding, the Government has done nothing to roll back the $5 billion a year private health insurance rebate available to those who can afford it.

That is despite the evidence that the growth in health insurance in the past 15 years has failed to ease public hospital strains and in fact may have achieved the opposite.

We know the rise in insurance premiums and out of pocket health costs have persisted. There is little evidence for instance to support the notion that imposing new co-payments for GP and diagnostic services will reduce overall costs, particularly long term.

In fact, the evidence that is available, from such institutions as the highly-conservative RAND Corporation in the United States, suggests the contrary, that there would be little overall saving and that co-payments tend to hit the poor hardest.

The proposal for the “world biggest” medical research endowment may well prove illusory.

Already it looks an unbalanced initiative when we know so many solutions to our health problems are available right now, if only there was the will and the funds to implement them.

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This blog was originally posted on Croakey at http://blogs.crikey.com.au/croakey/2014/05/27/as-vaccho-launches-petition-against-co-payments-the-consumers-health-forum-critiques-the-medical-research-fund/ 

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About the author

Adam Stankevicius

Adam Stankevicius was Chief Executive Officer of the Consumers Health Forum of Australia.