Last month Mitchell hosted Finnish professor and international public health expert, Pekka Puska to discuss the key health challenges facing Australia in the coming decades.

As well offering his insights, Professor Puska led a workshop of leading academic experts, clinical leaders and policy makers focusing on the strategy and development of the Mitchell Institute’s health policy and research program, which will examine chronic disease prevention in Australia.

Professor Puska, Director General of the Finish Institute of Health and Welfare and the President of the World Heart Foundation, is globally recognised for his many public health achievements including an 80 per cent reduction in cardiovascular disease mortality among the working age population in Finland.

Chronic disease prevention, through health promoting programs and policies that lead to lifestyle changes, can have quite rapid effects and are usually cheap and cost effective

Chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and mental illness, represent a huge and growing health burden in Australia. Despite this, health systems and services are largely unprepared to face this expanding challenge, and without change, these diseases threaten to overwhelm existing health budgets and systems.

“Most chronic diseases are preventable from a medical point of view,” he said. “We have good scientific data and we know what works, but we still have problems implementing those solutions. The challenges are usually political, economic or social - not medical or scientific.”

Using examples of tobacco control and diabetes prevention in North Karelia, Finland to illustrate his point, Professor Puska stressed there is too much pessimism about tackling chronic disease.

“Chronic disease prevention, through health promoting programs and policies that lead to lifestyle changes, can have quite rapid effects and are usually cheap and cost effective,” he said.

Rosemary Calder, Mitchell Institute Director of Health Policy is convinced preventing chronic disease in Australia is possible through a systems approach that enables policy changes to deliver high social and economic returns.

“Australia’s health systems continue to focus on treating, rather than preventing, illness. The Mitchell Institute health program will draw on the work of Professor Puska and others to make the case for changing our approach to chronic disease – and to promote better targeted policies that can help reduce these diseases,” she said.

The Mitchell Institute will partner closely with the new Victoria University Centre for Chronic Disease Prevention and Management. Centre Director, Professor Maximilian de Courten welcomes the collaboration and says focussing on prevention is strongly aligned with Victoria University’s focus on Melbourne’s West.

“We know the West has a high prevalence of chronic disease and this is holding many people back from living fulfilling and productive lives, “said Professor de Courten.

“We will be working with the community and the Mitchell Institute to translate our research into policies, programs and interventions that better prevent and manage these diseases and that work for communities across Australia.”