Healthcare systems are the source of public debate the world over and Australia is no different. Demographic changes and burgeoning technology are two global trends that have seen the Canberra government wrestling with the future of Australia’s health system. Although the Commonwealth Government has set out a number of root and branch reforms, new research claims that the need for changes may not be as desperate as the country’s leaders might think.
The conventional thinking a decade ago was to encourage the growth of a parallel private health insurance system, through leading providers such as Frank Health Insurance and others. The hope was that much of the pressure which was building in public healthcare would be relieved through the existence of an attractive alternative for those who could afford it. The result however, according to health economists has been shrinking resources in the public system with doctors and consultants opting to increasingly work in the more lucrative private sector. Consequently, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports that the average time taken to receive treatment for 90 per cent of patients increased from 219 to 265 days between 2008 and 2012. Not exactly the desired effect those authorities had planned for encouraging private healthcare.
However, the government has responded by springing into action. The government’s National Health Reforms were constructed in order to shift the focus from over-burdened hospitals onto an expanded, efficient and slick primary health care system. For the uninitiated, this means halting the need for patients to turn automatically to hospitals by instead providing easier access to GPs, nurses, physiotherapists and other specialists who can effectively treat them. It was assumed that especially with an ageing population, real efforts and resources would need to be dedicated to freeing up as many hospital beds as possible for the elderly infirm.
As a result, the government decided to place a greater focus on the role of Medicare Locals which would be able to coordinate local needs. On a micro level, they are responsible for increasing access to after-hours GP services and other professionals for local residents, while linking professionals in the same area more closely to one another. Meanwhile on a macro scale Medicare Locals have been handed the task of monitoring the flow of patients in local hospitals and the availability of primary healthcare professionals, ensuring a good working equilibrium for all.
The reforms also included a boost in investment. In terms of infrastructure, the government has planned the construction of 64 Super Clinics across Australia. These ‘one stop shops’ are designed to house not only GPs but also nurses, mental health specialists, podiatrists and other health care professionals. In addition to these capital projects, the government pledged $1.2billion to train more GPs and specialists plus further funds for training schemes, clinical training scholarships and supporting nurses. By expanding crucial areas of public health and streamlining the entire operation, the government hopes to give individuals and communities a more efficient system.
However, recent research suggests that concerns over inexorably increasing pressure on the public system may not actually be as acute as first assumed. The Medical Journal of Australia concluded from a 12-year study that despite an ageing population, growing life expectancy and improved survival rates did not result in longer hospital stays or more nursing home patients. So, are the government’s widespread reforms really necessary? Only time will tell.