Terry Slevin – PHAA CEO
Today marks a ‘red letter day’ for the health of our nation. At least it should.
With the launch of Australia’s 10-year National Preventive Health Strategy, the Minister for Health and Aged Care, Greg Hunt, has put in place the framework for what could be the most significant boost for public health in generations. Watch this space (hopefully sooner than later) for the required funding commitments to match a rock-solid strategy document.
So, why the need for such a significant and targeted approach at prevention? And why now? As several speakers mentioned today, look no further than how we’ve so far successfully managed Australia’s pandemic response.
Over nearly two years of COVID-19, preventive health measures including education, risk mitigation and immunisation are estimated to have saved around 30,000 Australian lives.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that, on average, Australians live almost 11 years in poor health, or around 13% of their life. Over the past 50 years, the prevalence of chronic conditions (e.g. cancer, cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, mental health conditions and substance disorders) has steadily increased, leading to the majority of Australia’s disease burden. However, it’s estimated 38% of this disease burden could be prevented through a reduction in modifiable risk factors such as overweight and obesity, physical inactivity, dietary risks, and alcohol, tobacco and other drug use.
A new funding model
By committing to an increase of investment in preventive health to 5% of total health expenditure across Commonwealth State and Territory governments by 2030 – from 1.7% now – Australia can emerge from the pandemic with the prospect of becoming the envy of the world for our population’s overall health.
I was delighted to be involved in today’s launch, and the Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) commends all who’ve joined with us in championing the development of this Strategy. It provides a new way of addressing disease prevention which, if implemented, will ultimately save tens of thousands of lives and remove significant pressure on our hospital and overall health system.
The fact that more than 1,200 people registered for the webinar launch demonstrates how keenly anticipated this Strategy has been, especially given it’s been more than two years in the making (COVID-19 providing a frustrating, yet unavoidable distraction).
Under the framework of this Strategy, we can look forward to living in a much healthier Australia in the future. In the broadest terms, the Strategy addresses the increasing burdens of disease, reduces health inequities, and hastens preparedness for emerging health threats.
It also suggests creating a new, independent way to set the government’s spending priorities, including putting an equity lens on current, emerging and future priorities in prevention.
A multi-layered approach
As Minister Hunt emphasised during the launch, the Strategy’s aim is to help Australians improve their health at all stages of life. Through early intervention, better information, targeting risk factors and addressing the broader causes of poor health and wellbeing.
The Minister spoke to the four main goals of the Strategy in which:
- all Australians have the best start in life
- all Australians live in good health and wellbeing for as long as possible
- health equity is achieved for priority populations
- investment in preventive health is increased.
The Strategy also includes seven “system enablers” and seven “focus areas”.
“And they are very granular goals which I really like…nutrition, physical activity, tobacco, immunisation, cancer screening, alcohol and other drugs, and mental health,” Minister Hunt said. “And all of those elements have hard granular goals; measurable, identifiable, and something against which we can be held accountable.
“This National Preventive Health Strategy will ultimately save lives, that’s it’s goal. It’s long-term investment, and it’s patient capital to use the language of the private sector,” the Minister added.
Since September 2019, over 6,000 people have been consulted on the development of the Strategy and I was very pleased to be a part of the Expert Steering Committee. The committee was composed of experts from a range of specialties to reflect the extensive scope of preventive health, including professionals from public health, health promotion, medical, nursing, allied health and consumer advocacy fields.
It was fitting that two other members of the Expert Steering Committee, Professor Emily Banks, Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at the ANU, and Professor Andrew Wilson, Co-Director of the Menzies Centre for Health Policy and Economics at the University of Sydney, also participated in today’s launch.
Professor Banks highlighted the importance of prevention as a fundamental in the bigger health picture, describing it as a ”win, win, win.”
“It’s a win for the individual. It’s a win for the health service. It’s a win for the community and the economy,” Professor Banks said.
While welcoming the finalisation of the Strategy, Professor Banks said community action was now required to mobilise a national prevention system.
“We actually need the community to take action,” Professor Banks said.
“So, if we think about wearing seatbelts, and about getting vaccinated, and we think about the control of COVID, it only works because we’ve actually got the community as the heroes in it.”
Professor Wilson said one of the biggest challenges of his more than 30 years working in the prevention field “is getting recognition in national strategies of the complexity that is involved in prevention.”
He highlighted the Key Learnings section of the Strategy (Page 30) which he said “best summarises what is necessary for effective prevention, capturing both the essence and actions. The key features there are that success comes from sustained and coordinated action. It doesn’t happen overnight. To have a real impact prevention needs to be financed…healthy environments support healthy living, and health is for all Australians; we’re only as safe when the most vulnerable are safe…”
Adding her voice in support, Dr Katie Allen MP, paediatrician, public health researcher and federal Member for Higgins said “the world is now recognising the role of preventive health and public health in protecting us and keeping us safe. There is so much work for us to do to help pivot the political class to understanding deeply the role that prevention plays in a healthier future.”
Dr Allen, who is also co-convenor of the cross-party Parliamentary Friends of Preventive Health group told the webinar, “When people ask why did I put my hand up for politics, quite frankly this is the reason. It’s because health funding is often in silos, and we need to look across the whole of society to improve health outcomes for all Australians, including of course our First Nations people,” she added.
It cannot be emphasised enough, the importance that the new Strategy has been developed to fully align with the commitments made under the National Agreement on Closing the Gap and other key Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy initiatives. These include the refresh of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan, and the commitment to develop a National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Workforce Plan.
So, we now have a sound National Preventive Health Strategy for the future. As we hurtle towards an early 2022 federal election, I look forward to a bipartisan approach to the funding and delivery of the Strategy.
As I mentioned at the conclusion of the launch, we now have a very valuable template and we’ll be putting it before the major political parties, looking for specific commitments out of all sides of politics on how they intend to fulfil the Strategy.
Broadly speaking there seems to be an understanding and acceptance that the principles in this Strategy are sound. The biggest challenge now is to translate it into reality and the PHAA encourages everyone with an interest in public health – and our nation’s overall health – to prosecute the case with whoever is standing for election in your local seats, and to make your voice heard about the importance of greater investment in public health.