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The national report card on Australia’s health shows that we are not on track to meet our health targets, and foreshadows a rise in preventable chronic illness.

Released today, Australia’s Health Tracker 2019 shows that one in two people in Australia is now living with a chronic illness, such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, mental illness, arthritis or dementia. A third of the burden of chronic disease is preventable.

The report card, developed by the Australian Health Policy Collaboration, led by Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute, measures Australians health against 13 risk factors for chronic illness, and shows that most of our health behaviour risks are getting worse, not better.

Professor Rosemary Calder from the Mitchell Institute at Victoria University said a rise in risky health behaviours points towards a further rise in chronic illness, warning that failure to turn around Australia’s health will lead to a dramatic rise in health service demand and costs.

We need a major rethink in how we deliver healthcare to put illness prevention at the forefront of our health policies and services.

“To achieve this we need to change the way we structure and pay for our primary health. We need funding arrangements that enable primary health care professionals and services to intervene and help support people to reduce their health risk factors, to prevent disease in the first place.”

Professor Calder is a member of the federal government’s expert steering committee for the development of Australia’s first National Preventive Health Strategy.

“One of the most important first steps for effective prevention is the adoption of health targets by federal and state governments,” Professor Calder said. “As we have seen with smoking, when governments commit to targets for improvement, this drives action and investment to succeed in achieving those targets – it becomes a government priority,” Professor Calder said.

She said funding for prevention was also an urgent priority.

Just 1.3% of Australia’s healthcare budget is spent on disease prevention despite the huge burden of preventable chronic illness on our community and health system.

"That needs to change. This is well below countries like the UK and US which spend closer to 5% of their healthcare budgets on prevention.”

The Tracker measures 13 risk factors including: overweight and obesity; smoking and risky drinking rates; blood pressure; physical inactivity; and sugar, junk food and salt consumption. It also measure chronic illness, and cancer screening rates.

Across all risk indicators, Australia has either met or is heading in the right direction to meet targets for drinking, smoking and blood pressure. 

“It is no surprise that Australia is on track on key targets which have received the greatest priority from government. It shows what can be achieved when strategies and funding are invested to target key risk factors,” Professor Calder said.

Professor Calder said despite the national success in these areas, the local data revealed success varied depending on where people lived.

“Smoking rates vary from almost 40% in some low socioeconomic areas of Australia, to just 6% in wealthy inner Sydney,” Professor Calder said. “It highlights the impact of where we live and our wealth on our health.

“Prevention strategies need to be targeting communities with stubbornly high rates of health risks and addressing the impact of the environment around us that can influence our behaviour and choices.

“Our communities influence our health risk. For example, obesity rates are highest in communities with lower income, where access to low cost healthy food is limited, cheap fast foods are readily available, there is little public transport, bike paths, green spaces or beaches, and people need to use a car to access shops and schools. These factors can be changed,” Professor Calder said.

“The federal health minister’s commitment to a national preventive health strategy is an essential first step in the right direction. It is vitally important that governments at all levels focus on collectively addressing the impact of where we live on our health”.

Ends

The Australian Health Policy Collaboration brings together more than 50 health organisations to deliver an evidence-based consensus on how to improve Australia’s healthcare system. The Collaboration is a program of the Mitchell Institute, Victoria University.

Australian Health Tracker Highlights

Adults

Good news

  • 12.2% smoke, a downward trend
  • 17.1% consume risky levels of alcohol, down from 20.1% in 2010
  • 20.4% of Aboriginal Australians consume risky levels of alcohol, a downward trend
  • 41% screening for bowel cancer (hit the target)
  • 55% screening for breast cancer (hit the target)

Bad news

  • 31.3% are obese, rising from 24.6% in 2007-08 (27% increase)
  • 67% are overweight or obese, rising from 61.1% in 2007-08
  • 18% rise in the suicide rate over just four years.6 deaths per 100,000 people
  • 25% rise in the suicide rate for Indigenous Australians, 25.5 deaths per 100,000
  • 27.7% of adults with a mental illness and smoke, rising from 23.5% in three years
  • 27.4% of indigenous Australians smoke
  • 208.2 deaths per 100,000 from chronic illness (CVD, common cancers, diabetes and chronic respiratory disease). A slight rise from 207 deaths in 2016.
  • 52.7% inactive or not getting enough exercise
  • 24.6% of total energy is from junk food, on average
  • 47.8% consume too much sugar
  • 22.8% have high blood pressure, stabilising.
  • 32.8% have high cholesterol

Children

  • 26.2% of children are overweight or obese and the figure is rising
  • 39.4% of Children’s daily energy is from junk food
  • 70.8% are inactive or not doing enough exercises
  • 70% eat too much sugar every day
  • 28.9% of children are exclusively fed to sixth months of age.

Young people

  • Binge drinking in young people has fallen over seven years to 5.1% from 6.4%
  • 91% are inactive or not doing enough exercises
  • 7.9% are obese
  • 23.2% are overweight or obese
  • 72.1% eat too much sugar. Male teens have the equivalent of 23 teaspoon a day
  • 40% of total energy is from junk food
  • 81.5% of young people with a mental illness are employed verses 91% of their peers

Data is sourced from: the Australian Health Survey 2017-18, 2014-15, 2011-12; NDSHS 2010, 2013, 2016; Causes of Death 2017, 2014; Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey 2012-13; AHS 2011-12; NBCSP 2018. 2013-14; PHIDU; Breast Screen Australia, 2018, 2012-13; NBCSP 2018, 2013-14; ASSAD 2017; White and Bariola 2012; Lensvelt et al. 2015.

Authors

Rosemary Calder
Professor of Health Policy, Mitchell Institute