Thursday, May 29, 2008

Primary Health Care

I subscribe to and have been following a new discussion on primary health care. We hope that these ideas are ebing fed into the National Helath and Hostprials eform commission. Of particluar interest is Associate Professor Simon Willcock, who works as a GP in Sydney has commented on primary health care. He says:

There have been some positive changes in recent years, aimed at rewarding quality of care rather than patient throughput, a significant part of my practice hasn't been particularly helped by the current Extended Primary Care items.

This group often has complex medical needs, Homeless and unemployed individuals, people with chronic psychological health or substance abuse problems, and isolated young people whose needs were largely ignored by the previous government can't have their needs met without a comprehensive reassessment of how we provide care and support to these groups.

They are often mired in a morass of bureaucracy, bounced from Centrelink to Medicare to the Department of Housing to the desperately under-resourced state health outpatient services.

Fiona Armstrong, Convenor of Australian Health Care Reform Alliance, has responded to Simon Willcock’s concerns. She writes:

Simon Willcock’s concerns echo those of many in lamenting the inequitable access to services under our current models of primary health care. The current system of primary health care funding in Australia creates serious barriers to people whose personal resources affect their ability to fund out of pocket costs for services that are not bulkbilled.

Australians are facing increasing out of pocket costs health care costs and an increasing number are failing to seek essential health care because they can’t afford it.

An international comparison of health care by the Commonwealth Fund (USA) has revealed that in recent years 34% of Australians have either not filled a prescription, had a health problem but didn’t see a doctor, or failed to complete a recommended medical test, treatment or follow-up, because of cost. And 43% of people in Australia from below average income groups could not afford dental care. Australia ranked fourth out of the six countries surveyed in these measures of access to care. It is a disgrace in a country as wealthy as ours, with a supposed universal health care system, that people are unable to access essential health care.

One of the essential principles of health care in a modern democracy is that access to health care is a right, and should be available on the basis of need, not the ability to pay. The current system of primary health care funding in Australia however creates serious barriers to effective health promotion and chronic disease management, and is limiting its effectiveness in terms of equity, access and value for money. Major reform is needed.

The current system in Australia of primary health care is more appropriately described as primary care – familiar to most Australians as a trip to the GP. More often than not, primary care in Australia (as researcher Helen Keleher describes): “involves a single service or intermittent management of a person’s specific illness or disease condition in a service that is typically contained to a time-limited appointment”. However primary health care, as identified in the international Treaty of Alma Ata, is characterised by a focus on the promotion of health and the prevention of illness, according to principles of equity, access, and community empowerment, and achieved by care delivered by multidisciplinary teams.

An example of a more effective model of primary health care, for both people using the services and the professionals providing the services, is that of primary health organisations (PHO) in New Zealand, where salaried health professionals offer well integrated multidisciplinary patient centred care to an enrolled population. People using the services are able to have comprehensive health care needs met by the most appropriate health professional, and health professionals have the benefits of working in a collaborative environment with support from their multidisciplinary colleagues and the satisfaction of working in a team to share the care of the community they provide services to.

Evidence suggests that this model is not only more cost effective than fee-for-service models, where costs blow out in an uncapped system, but it provides for the delivery of high quality best practice care, as it offers greater scope for better utilisation of available skills and the ability to provide services that are responsive to community needs.

A centre such as the NZ model employing a range of health care professionals – nurses, doctors, allied health professionals, counsellors, dieticians, and psychologists - can also provide a much more holistic and effective form of primary health care than a solo GP.

A mechanism for funding this, as in NZ, could be a population based capitation as a mechanism for improving access to, and coordination of, primary health care services in Australia. This is something the health reform commission, in its charter to “improve frontline care”, would do well to consider.

Fiona Armstrong, Federal Professional Officer
Australian Nursing Federation


Darlene said...

Catherine emailed me in response to this post. I am posting comments on her behalf:
After a deep sigh of disappointment [and frustration] at the latest political decision made by the AMA [with its decision to withdraw its services in the 'NT Intervention'] I'm left to wonder and hope that this could be a timely opportunity for our Federal Government to adopt an alternative model of health care, such as the NZ model of primary health care as referenced above, and truly make a sustainable difference to the health and wellbeing of our aboriginal fellow citizens.

Whilst the Extended Primary Care model that has developed in Australia does offer some hope of change, with its more comprehensive model of health care, the inequities that prevail in our existing medical/ GPcentric model of care will always leave us, as the consumers, at the mercy of the latest political decision of the AMA.

Maybe, when the AMA acknowledges that their place is as one member in a partnership of health care provision, will we finally see some equitable and sustainable progress made in the health of our nation as a whole. This change, I believe, will only occur if it is directed by genuine consumer demand - and not a political agenda!

Farmstrong said...

Fiona Armstrong asked to make this correction to the story above:

In the fourth paragraph, where it says: “And 43% of Australians have needed dental care but did not see a dentist because they couldn’t afford it.”

It should say: “And 43% of people in Australia from below average income groups could not afford dental care.”

Darlene said...

Thanks Fiona, I have made the change you requested.