Australia’s Health 2016 report card: experts respond

Australians are living longer than ever but with higher rates of chronic disease, the latest national report card shows.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s Australia’s Health 2016 report, released today, Australian boys can now expect to live into their 80s (80.3), while the life expectancy for girls has reached the mid-80s (84.4).

A boy born and girl born in 1890 could only expect to live to 47.2 and 50.8 years respectively. AIHW

The single leading cause of death in Australia is coronary heart disease, followed by:

Grouped together, cancer has overtaken cardiovascular disease (heart disease and stroke) as Australia’s biggest killer. Cancer is also the largest cause of illness, followed by cardiovascular disease:

Burden of disease, by disease group, Australia, 2011 AIHW

Chronic diseases are becoming more common, due to population growth and ageing. Half of Australians (more than 11 million) have at least one chronic disease. One quarter have two or more.

The most common combination of chronic diseases is arthritis with cardiovascular disease (heart disease and stroke):

AIHW

Australians have high rates of the biomedical risk factors that increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. Almost a quarter (23%) of Australian adults have high blood pressure and 63% have abnormal levels of cholesterol.


Lifestyle choices

Fron Jackson-Webb, Health + Medicine Editor, The Conversation

The good news is Australians are less likely to smoke and drink at risky levels than in the past.

Australia now has the fourth-lowest smoking rate among 34 OECD countries, at 13% in 2013. This is almost half that of 1991 (24%).

AIHW

The volume of alcohol Australians consume fell from 10.8 litres per person in 2007–08 to 9.7 litres in 2013–14. This is the lowest level since 1962–63. But 16% of Australians are still drinking to very risky levels: consuming 11 or more standard drinks on one occasion in the past 12 months.

AIHW

Around eight million Australians have tried illicit drugs in their lifetime, including 2.9 million in the last 12 months. The most commonly used illicit drugs are cannabis (10%), ecstasy (2.5%), methamphetamine (2.1%) and cocaine (2.1%).

Use of methamphetamine has remained stable in recent years. However, more methamphetamine users are opting for crystal (ice) rather than powder (speed).

The bad news is Australians are still struggling with their weight. Around 63% are overweight or obese, up from 56% in 1995. This equates to an average increase of 4.4kg for men and women. One in four children are overweight or obese.

Junk foods high in salt, fat and sugar account for around 35% of adults’ energy intake and around 39% of the energy intake for children and young people.

Most Australians (93%) don’t consume the recommended five serves of vegetables a day and only half eat the recommended two serves of fruit. Just 3% of children eat enough vegetables, though 70% consume the recommended amount of fruit.

Almost half (45%) of adults aged 18 to 64 and 23% of children aren’t meeting the national physical activity recommendations. These are for adults to accumulative 150 to 300 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous intensity physical activity each week. Children are advised to accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day.

Lifestyle choices have a huge impact on the risk of chronic disease; an estimated 31% of the burden of disease in Australia could have been prevented by reducing risk factors such as smoking, excess weight, risky drinking, physical inactivity and high blood pressure.

Proportion of the burden attributable to the top five risk factors

AIHW


Inequities

Fran Baum, Matthew Flinders Distinguished Professor and Foundation Director at the Southgate Institute for Health, Society & Equity, Flinders University

Australia’s Health 2016 shows many Australians are not getting a fair go at health. There is a gradient across society whereby the richer the area you live in, the longer you can expect to live. The difference between the highest and lowest is four years.

Deaths by socioeconomic group: 1 = lowest; 5 = highest

AIHW

The gradient is evident from early life. Children most at risk of exclusion – those from poor areas who experience problems with education, housing and connectedness – are most likely to die before they reach 15 years from potentially preventable or treatable causes.


Further reading: Want to improve the nation’s health? Start by reducing inequalities and improving living conditions


Our most glaring inequity is the ten-year life gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and others. Indigenous life expectancy is 69.1 years for males and 73.7 years for females.

Compared with the non-Indigenous population, Indigenous Australians are:

  • 3.5 times as likely to have diabetes and four times as likely to be hospitalised with it or to die from it
  • five times as likely to have end-stage kidney disease
  • twice as likely to die from an injury
  • twice as likely to have heart disease.

Australians living outside major cities have higher rates of disease and injury. They also live in environments that make healthy lifestyles choices harder (such as more difficulties buying fresh fruit and vegetables) and so their risk of chronic diseases is increased.

AIHW

The data on who has private health insurance coverage points to the emergence of a two-tiered health system, where those who can afford to pay receive better access and quality of care. Just 26% of those in the lowest socioeconomic group have cover compared to about 80% of the top group.

Coverage with private health insurance and government health-care cards

AIHW


Cost of care

Professor Stephen Duckett, Director of the Health Program at Grattan Institute

Over the last decade, health expenditure grew about 5% each year, above the 2.8% average growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP). As a result, health took up an increasing share of GDP.

Spending more on health means Australia spent less on other things. This is not necessarily bad, as long as the benefits from that increased expenditure – such as increasing life expectancy or increased quality of life – are worth the increased costs.

But spending above GDP growth cannot continue indefinitely. And the last few years saw an increase in rhetoric about health spending increases being “unsustainable” from so-called “futurists” and politicians.

Informed commentators have generally rejected the unsustainability claim, some labelling it a “myth”, while others take a more nuanced view.

Australia’s Health 2016 shows a slowing of the real growth rate in the most recent two years to about half that of the previous decade – 1.1% from 2011-12 to 2012-13 and 3.1% from 2012–13 to 2013–14.

Annual growth rates in health expenditure AIHW

This suggests the “unsustainability” rhetoric is at least overblown and potentially prompting budget decisions which are counter-productive, such as introducing a co-payment for general practice.

Commonwealth government expenditure was more or less stable over these most recent two years, declining 2.5% initially then increasing 2.4% in the last year.

Health expenditure by area (adjusted for inflation)

AIHW

Savings to the government came from shifting costs to consumers, by slowing the growth in government subsidies to private health insurers, and also by slowing spending on pharmaceuticals.

This latter slowdown was achieved through tighter controls on payments to drug manufacturers and because some big-selling drugs came off patent, resulting in falls in prices.

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