An important national agreement on Closing the Gap in Indigenous Health Outcomes is due to expire at the end of June.
As future funding arrangements are developed, it is important that decision making is informed by reliable data and contextual understanding, says Selwyn Button, CEO of the Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Health Council.
For true primary healthcare and better outcomes, support community controlled healthcare
Selwyn Button writes:
Over the past few weeks, authorities have released a number of reports about the performance and expenditure of our national health system, and some of these relate directly to efforts aimed at improving the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
This might seem a good thing on face value, as we need to know whether our efforts are making any difference, and where to direct resources in future to ensure ongoing outcomes.
But if this information is used without the appropriate context, it may be used as a means of reducing expenditure on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health, in the name of creating ”efficiencies”.
This presents a significant risk for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, as we continue efforts in improving the health of our people, while remaining at the whim of Ministers and government officials who rely on this information to determine policy priorities and resource investments.
What is needed now is for governments to re-think how we analyse, interpret and use data to inform ongoing priorities, practice and future innovation.
Firstly, let’s take the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Performance Framework report released in early 2013. and used as the main body of evidence for the Prime Minister’s Close the Gap Report card.
This report clearly demonstrated that the most significant gains in access to care and improvement of outcomes is and continues to be achieved through the national network of community controlled health services.
Upward of 75% of health improvements outlined in the report were directly attributed to the community controlled sector, and clearly justifies the increased investment into community controlled services as the most appropriate provider of healthcare for Indigenous people as they are making the best health gains.
Secondly, let’s consider the most recent Indigenous Expenditure report of 2012 produced by the Productivity Commission, that averages overall Medicare expenditure on Indigenous people as 60 cents in the dollar compared to the rest of the Australian population.
As many readers would be aware, Medicare was created as a safety net to ensure that all Australians get access to required care and benefits through quality primary health care services.
With community controlled services focused on providing comprehensive primary health care to our people, efforts in increasing access to an individual’s entitlements through Medicare can and will be best achieved by our organisations.
In spite of this data, we now have more recent releases stating the overall expenditure of the National health budget is 1.5 times greater for Indigenous people than the broader population.
Additionally, we have received further data stating that mortality rates for certain illnesses are only reducing by slight amounts and chronic diseases are still high placing burden upon the public health system.
Although much of this information is already 2 years old by the time it is released, it fails to identify why much of the burden is borne by secondary and tertiary public health systems, as access to comprehensive primary health care is still limited for our people nationally.
Consequently, when you don’t have access to quality primary health care, many of our people will present at secondary and tertiary facilities when their issues have escalated to a point where hospital is the last resort, requiring treatment for not only one health condition, but generally 2 or 3 issues.
Even though we have over 150 community controlled organisations across the country, our services do not exist in every corner of the nation, and fundamentally this would be impossible to achieve without enormous costs involved.
Alternatively, what we should be aiming to achieve is to have a strong community controlled presence providing quality care to our communities in all areas with populations greater than 900 residents focused on increasing access to comprehensive primary health care.
Why primary health care? Current and historical research by credible researchers have proven that the most effective means of delivering care and improving outcomes for Indigenous people is through community controlled services.
Health economists such as Professor Theo Vos and colleagues identified this in their work in assessing cost effectiveness of primary prevention activities across all health providers. This work clearly highlighted that compared with government-run, mainstream and private services, community controlled organisations achieve close to 50% better outcomes than other providers in delivering care to our own people.
Although this method was documented to be more expensive than other models, the focus on outcomes should not be lost, as the only variable included in his analysis that increased the overall expenditure against the model was transportation services for clients.
Due to the implementation of a comprehensive primary health care model, transport services are a core component and will always be included within the community controlled delivery of care, which does not diminish the model but does and will continue to achieve far greater outcomes.
Unfortunately, the notion of ‘If you build it he will come..’ only works for Kevin Costner in the movies, and does not work to improve health outcomes for our people.
With all this data now publicly available for all to review and analyse, we must hope that in determining future policy and funding priorities for Indigenous health care, consideration is given to understanding the context and reliablity of the information.
Importantly, there already exists some credible evidence that encapsulates comprehensive primary health care delivery into a set of core functions. This research was conducted and undertaken as a partnership between all healthcare providers, and should be the central component of any current and future policy debate about improving the health of Indigenous people, as it is widely accepted within the community controlled sector as the gold-standard in health service delivery for our people.
This work is the Core Functions of Primary Health Care in the Northern Territory, and with minimal adjustments to ensure local contexts are considered can and is applicable across all parts of the country. Utilising the Core Functions as a means to support improving outcomes goes a long way to encapsulate high quality service delivery standards with current data and information to ensure that we are all targeting the right priorities, through appropriate mechanisms.
This was not evident at start of the COAG investment to support overall Indigenous improvements, which saw over 65% of the entire $1.6B commitment channelled into mainstream and government-run service providers, as it was determined the most effective way to improve outcomes. Data was used showing that 70% of our people access care through government-run and mainstream services.
New data and information available now rebuts this myth that community controlled services have struggled with over the last 4 years.
Information now available within the community controlled sector shows that over 40% of Indigenous Queenslanders access care regularly through community controlled services, yet we are not in every part of the state.
With the end of the current Indigenous Health National Partnership Agreement set for 30 June 2013, we need to ensure that all of the relevant information and context is considered as part of ongoing discussions, policy setting and resource allocations to improve the health of our people.
Consequently, we are confident that this evidence will lead to what we have been seeking for many years – an increased investment in those services known to make a difference to the health of our people. That is community controlled organisations.
• Follow Selwyn Button on Twitter @qaihc