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19 Mar 2015

The AMA has raised concerns that critical information regarding hospital bed capacity has been omitted from a report showing a remorseless increase in demand for hospital services.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has reported that public hospital admissions have been growing by 3 per cent a year since 2009-10, and reached 5.7 million in 2013-14. Over the same period, the nation’s population increased by an average 1.6 per cent a year.

AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler said the growth in admissions highlighted concerns that current public hospital funding arrangements were becoming increasingly inadequate in supporting public hospitals to cope with growing demand.

A/Professor Owler said that for this reason it was critical that data about the availability of public hospital beds – information traditionally included in the AIHW report – be publicly available.

“The number of beds is key information about the capacity of our hospital system to meet the community’s needs for acute medical care, and it is a mystery why it is missing. The AMA hopes to see bed number statistics in future reports,” the AMA President said.

The AIHW report shows that private hospitals have been shouldering an increasing share of the health care burden. Since 2009-10, admissions to private facilities have been growing by an average 3.6 per cent a year, and in 2013-14 they provided four million of the nation’s 9.7 million admissions that year.

But, possibly reflecting the tendency for patients with more critical and complex needs to attend public hospitals, the public system provided an average of 3.3 days of patient care per admission, compared with an average of 2.3 days in the private sector.

Underlining the importance of efforts to stem the rise of obesity and other lifestyle-related illnesses, the AIHW report found that dialysis for kidney disease was single most common reason for a person to go to hospital, accounting for 1.3 million admissions in 2013-14.

In a result that should worry cost-conscious governments, the report showed that such admissions were outstripping overall admission growth, increasing by an average of 3.9 per cent a year since 2009-10.

The findings come amid increasing concern about the effect of Commonwealth cutbacks to public hospital funding.

In last year’s Budget, the Government announced measures that will rip $20 billion out of hospital funding in coming years, including the renunciation of spending guarantees and a reduction in the indexation rate to inflation plus population growth. These cuts were compounded last December when the Government revealed a further $941 million reduction in spending on hospitals over the next four years.

A/Professor Owler said it was disappointing the AIHW report had not addressed the likely effect of these funding cuts.

“On top of the missing bed numbers, the report does not provide forecasts about the future facing our public hospitals under the Commonwealth Government’s reductions to overall public hospital funding,” he said.

“While there is a year-on-year funding increase, the amount of that increase is reducing at each Budget update. It is not keeping pace with increased demand, and is clearly inadequate to achieve the capacity needed.”

A/Professor Owler said the switch to a lower indexation rate from 2017-18 “will create a totally inadequate base from which to index future funding for public hospitals.”

Adrian Rollins

Published: 19 Mar 2015