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17 Mar 2015

The Federal Government has been urged to lift its investment in general practice funding in order to tackle high rates of undetected but preventable and treatable chronic health problems that cause thousands of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders to die prematurely.

In its latest report on Indigenous health, the Close the Gap Campaign said that although some progress had been made in improving maternal and child health, the average life expectancy of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders continued to lag well behind that of other Australians, not least because of high levels of chronic disease.

In a finding that underscores calls from the AMA for the Federal Government to invest primary health care, the Campaign cited research showing that tens of thousands of Indigenous Australians were living with serious but undetected and untreated health problems.

A major survey found that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people were more likely than other Australians to develop diabetes, kidney disease and cardiovascular disease, but much were less likely to have their health problems diagnosed, particularly in the initial stages.

For example, more than 20 per cent of participants in the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Measures Survey were found to have high blood pressure, but of these, 80 per cent were unaware of the problem. Similarly, almost one in five had signs of chronic kidney disease, but 90 per cent of these were unaware.

General practitioners are seen to play a crucial role in the prevention, early detection and management of serious chronic health problems such as diabetes and kidney and heart disease, and the AMA has led a chorus of critics concerned that the $5 co-payment will deter people from seeing their family doctor, leaving many serious health problems to go undetected and untreated.

The AMA was instrumental in forcing the Government to dump its original $7 co-payment and a $20 rebate cut for shorter GP consultations that was proposed to replace it, and is lobbying for a remaining $5 Medicare rebate cut and six-year freeze on indexation to be scrapped.

AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler said that, instead of taking money out of general practice, the Government should be investing money in it in order to keep patients, such as those with chronic health problems like diabetes and kidney disease, out of hospital, where treatment is much more expensive.

“We would like to see these changes [the $5 cut and rebate freeze] taken off the table so that we can get on with having more constructive discussions with the Government about how to make our health system better,” A/Professor Owler said. “It is about actually how we get better funding for general practice to make sure that we keep people well in the community and out of expensive hospital care.”

Close the Gap Campaign co-Chair and Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda said the high prevalence of undetected and untreated serious chronic health problems among Indigenous people demanded Government action.

“We have seen some gains in maternal and child health, but without strong and sustainable commitment from Government to ensure chronic conditions are detected, treated and managed, the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is in jeopardy,” Mr Gooda said.


Adrian Rollins

Published: 17 Mar 2015