There are a few rumblings that are quietly growing in Australia’s health scene that will have some fairly major impacts on our ongoing ability to access medical care.
To be totally correct, there are 3 separate rumblings that will unite to cause quite a conundrum. An ageing population, an increase in chronic conditions and a health workforce that is diminishing and maldistributed.
The Baby Boomers Are Retiring
The baby boomers have hit retirement age. For the first time, the age distribution of our population has changed dramatically. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare cite a growth of 21% of 75 to 84 year olds in the most recent decade. Thanks to medical innovation and developments, our life expectancy is higher than at any other time in the recent past. And while that is extraordinary news, it signals a worrying side also. The fact is that as we age, our healthcare needs increase. The question is: are our hospitals and health services ready to manage the tsunami of demand from our ageing population?
Chronic Disease Is On The Rise
There has been no shortage of media attention to the rise in chronic disease. There is constant dialogue about obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease. One look at the federal government’s nine health priority areas and the concern over chronic disease is clear: seven of the nine priority areas are chronic conditions. The reason for the focus on these conditions: chronic illness constitutes 80% of this nation’s burden of disease.
Couple this with an ageing population, and the outlook worsens somewhat. Chronic disease accompanies old age. 76% of individuals over 75 years of age have a chronic disease, illness or disability. This will create more demand than what has been required in the past.
Where Are All The Doctors & Nurses?
The World Health Organisation evaluates a current deficit of health professional at 4.3 million. Health Workforce Australia (HWA), the government body responsible for planning our future healthcare workforce needs, anticipate a shortfall of 109,000 nurses alone by 2026. Also, HWA realize that our workforce is, at present, diminishing and poorly distributed. Our rural and remote areas have less access to the health care than their metropolitan counterparts. And that is before the issue of the ageing population and chronic disease truly begin to bite.
What Is Our Future Healthcare Looking Like?
The importance of the caregiver role couldn’t be more critical than right now. As our demands for health care change and increase, the number of family members providing care for the elderly, particularly caring for their elderly parents at home, will grow considerably. Even now, there is a renewed focus on ageing at home for as long as possible. We are starting to see a range of technologies, apps and tele health options starting to emerge through to the marketplace that assists the ageing stay at home and the caregiver provide safe and coordinated care.
Also, a renewed intensity is forming around primary care and preventative health. General Practitioners’ role comes to the frontline as the swing from acute care hospitals to chronic disease management happens. Keeping patients out of emergency departments and educating them in early intervention is now the focus for primary care professionals.
Those who deliver our healthcare will change also. There is a great deal of work going on throughout this country establishing possible role redesign amongst healthcare professionals so that broader tasks can be taken on by well-trained nurses, physiotherapists, optometrists and avail our doctors to manage the advanced and complex patients.
Nevertheless, planning is paramount. As our families age, it is the preparation for how we will age and how we want to age that will be essential. Forearmed is forewarned.