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Australia good, but can do better, on heart disease and stroke

Australia good, but can do better, on heart disease and stroke - Featured Image

Australia has one of the lowest mortality rates from cardiovascular disease in the developed world, but the nation has been told it needs to consider taxes on sugar-rich and unhealthy foods to combat rising obesity and diabetes.

Australia’s cardiovascular disease (CVD) mortality rate fell to 208 per 100,000 people in 2011, 30 per cent below the average among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development member countries of 299 per 100,000, and the potential years of life lost to circulatory diseases dipped to 372 per 100,000, 36 per cent below the OECD average of 581 per 100,000.

In a report released overnight, the OECD attributed the nation’s success in driving down deaths from heart attacks and stroke to accessible, high quality health care and effective public health policies, particularly in reducing smoking.

The Organisation said comprehensive tobacco control measures, including a hefty excise, mass media campaigns, advertising and smoking bans and, most recently, tobacco plain packaging laws, had helped drive the smoking rate down to 12.8 per cent last year, one of the lowest in the OECD and well below the average of 20.9 per cent among member countries in 2012.

But the OECD warned the nation needed to overcome several challenges if it was to cement and build upon its success in reducing CVD mortality.

It cautioned that Australia’s high obesity rate – 28.3 per cent, almost double the OECD average of 18 per cent – threatened to drive up the incidence of CVD unless it was addressed, and noted that the nation’s spending on preventive health measures had slipped to just 1.8 per cent of total health expenditure, well below the OECD average of 2.9 per cent.

In its first Budget, the Abbott Government abolished the Australian National Preventive Health Agency and absorbed its functions with the Health Department, heightening concerns of a loss of national focus and leadership on preventive health measures.

The OECD has also echoed warnings from the AMA about the dangers of deterring patients from seeing their doctor by imposing out-of-pocket costs.

AMA President Professor Brian Owler said the Government’s four-year freeze on Medicare rebates would create a patient co-payment “by stealth” by forcing doctors to reduce bulk billing and charge out-of-pocket (OOP) expenses.

The OECD said that Australian patients already faced higher than average out-of-pocket costs, and cautioned that “higher OOP costs will lead to a lower use of primary care services, particularly among the poor”.

Nonetheless, the Organisation said access to primary care in Australia was “generally good”, and the nation’s heavy use of cholesterol-lowering drugs – the highest in the OECD – showed there was ready access to medication.

The observation came two days after research was published estimating that 60,000 patients stopped taking cholesterol-lowering statins after the ABC television program Catalyst questioned their safety.

The OECD said Australians with CVD had access to good quality acute care. The 30-day case-fatality rate for acute myocardial infarction patients was 4.4 per cent, one of the lowest rates in the OECD, while case-fatality for stroke patients was around the OECD average and the proportion of stroke patients treated in dedicated facilities was higher than many other comparable countries.

The OECD said the country needed to curb the rise in obesity if it was to make further inroads into CVD fatality rates, and suggested it consider measures adopted in other countries, such as taxes on unhealthy or sugar-rich food and drinks and the development of nationally-co-ordinated health promotion programs.

Adrian Rollins