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Health Wrap: Delving into health data; public health messaging; new approaches on Aboriginal health and infectious news

This edition of The Health Wrap is compiled by Megan Howe, Publications Manager at the Sax Institute. Enjoy the wrap and don’t forget to tweet us @SaxInstitute if you have any ideas you’d like to share.

Delving into health data

Health data has been big news this fortnight, after an investigation by The Guardian revealed that Medicare card details were being auctioned by a darknet vendor on a site for illegal products, with at least 75 Australians’ personal details reported to have been sold.

Health Services Minister Alan Tudge quickly referred the matter to the Australian Federal police for investigation. Writing on Croakey, Alison Verhoeven, CEO of the Australian Healthcare & Hospitals Association urged the Government to act quickly and proactively to identify the sources of the data breach, address the breach and restore trust in the system.

In a post on The Conversation, Robert Merkel, lecturer in software engineering at Monash University, argued that following the breach there should be caution around moving health records online.

The Mandarin reported that the Federal Government had called in former head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet Peter Shergold to review security around health providers’ access to Medicare numbers.

Announcing the review, Mr Tudge and Health Minister Greg Hunt said:

“Medicare cards and Medicare numbers have always been sought by criminals. This review will identify options to improve the security of Medicare numbers while continuing to support the accessibility of medical care.”

The security of health data held by private health insurers was also in the spotlight, with The Sydney Morning Herald reporting that nearly 20,000 Australians had been affected by a Bupa Global data breach after an employee copied and removed customer information from the fund’s division that provides international health insurance for frequent travellers or people who work overseas.

Also focusing on health insurance data, this article on The Conversation suggested more detailed hospital data was needed to understand the implications of a report showing that an increasing number of patients in private hospitals were being urged to “go private”. The authors Peter Sivey and Terence Cheng wrote:

“If we had access to more detailed data, we could better understand what’s happening now, and ensure timely access to high quality hospital care for both public and private patients.”

Meanwhile, Choice called for reform of private health insurance, after its analysis found nearly half of Australians believed the process of finding a suitable policy was too difficult, according to The Sydney Morning Herald. A Choice survey of health insurance policyholders found one in five were considering dropping or downgrading their health cover within the next 12 months, mainly because it was too expensive.


Ranking our health

Australia is ranked second best in the world when it comes to healthcare, it was reported this fortnight, but The Sydney Morning Herald said that did not mean the system was equitable. The latest Commonwealth Fund report comparing the healthcare systems of 11 high-income countries showed Australia was among the top-ranked countries on issues such as preventative measures and patient engagement, but was much lower in the rankings when it came to equity of access.

Writing on Croakey, Dr Lesley Russell suggested the report highlighted a need to focus on strengthening Medicare and addressing inequalities. She wrote:

“All self-congratulations and praise should be tempered by the realisation that Australia ranks very poorly on equity: this indicates that the universality of Medicare is being undermined by difficulties in affordable access for many Australians.”

Meanwhile, BBC reported on the world’s least active countries, after US researchers gathered global data from people’s smartphones to see how active they really are. The study showed that Hong Kong was the most active, with phone users averaging 6,880 steps a day, while Indonesia was bottom of the rankings with just 3,513 steps, with Australia recording an average of 5,000 steps.


Keeping on message on public health issues

This fortnight we learnt that low-calorie sweeteners are bad for your health, that sugary drinks boost diabetes risk irrespective of obesity, and that drinking coffee may lead to a longer life.

The BBC reported on findings that children exercise less as they get older, with the number of children doing an hour of exercise a day falling by nearly 40% between the ages of five and 12.

And The Sydney Morning Herald reported on a lack of public awareness that obesity is associated with a rise in endometrial cancer in women, with rates of the cancer increasing in countries like Australia in tandem with the rise in obesity.

But the way in which public health campaigns tackle the issue of obesity was questioned in this article on The Conversation, in which Cat Pausé from Massey University suggested some campaigns could actually “perpetuate fat stigma”. She argued there was a lack of evidence that fat-shaming campaigns would combat obesity and said that, on the contrary, fat stigma had been found to be associated with negative impacts on both physical and psychological health. She wrote:

“In fact, population BMIs are not decreasing, even after decades of fat-shaming campaigns. Despite this, organisations continue to rely on fat stigma approaches.”

Her comments came as Perth Now reported that Facebook had blocked advertising by WA’s anti-obesity campaign, because of concerns the long-running  LiveLighter “grabbable gut” advert − in which a man grabs rolls of abdominal fat − could be offensive.

Another article on The Conversation suggested better access to health data could give urban planners an opportunity to reduce obesity by addressing “obesogenic” environments in which fast food outlets are common and there are few opportunities to keep active.

Public health messaging was also the focus of a report in The Age about a new campaign by Victoria University researchers to tackle binge drinking among university students. The researchers are trialling an app that sends text messages to students who are out drinking, urging them to slow down or to drink water.

Also on the public health front, the Fairfax press reported that big tobacco was running a “behind the scenes” campaign in a bid to change Australia’s vaping laws. The news came after the media around the world reported that tobacco giant Philip Morris had been ordered to pay the Australian government an undisclosed sum, thought to be up to $50 million, after unsuccessfully suing the government over its world-first plain packaging laws for cigarettes.

There have been calls for national action to prevent childhood injury, with the NSW Health launch of the Child Safety Good Practice Guide which outlines the latest research on preventing injuries in children, and identifies gaps in knowledge. As reported by The Sydney Morning Herald, every year about 250 Australian children under 18 die from non-intentional injuries, caused by car crashes, suffocation and drowning. Dr Julie Brown, a senior research fellow at Neuroscience Research Australia, said:

“We need a call to action about child injuries. The fact that we have this incredibly significant child health problem, that we haven’t made inroads into, is concerning.”

Meanwhile, the Federal Government’s recently released National Strategic Framework for Chronic Conditions was the focus of this Croakey article which raised concerns that the framework contains relatively little discussion about the impact of structural, political and commercial determinants of health in contributing to chronic disease.

And Croakey published a series of articles covering the third annual Lesbian, Bisexual and Queer Women’s Health Conference in Sydney. The conference heard that new research showed lesbian, bisexual and queer women were experiencing increasing rates of abuse and harassment, as well as other important health concerns. It also saw Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women share their stories and perspectives on how culture is central to LBQ First Nations people’s understanding of who they are. A final article outlined 10 powerful points for the health sector to emerge from the conference.


New approaches on Aboriginal health and wellbeing

A new approach to healthy eating which incorporates traditional ways with modern nutrition was the focus of an interesting IndigenousX article published in The Guardian. Hope for Health committee member Joanne Garnggulkpuy explained how the program is using the communities’ traditional knowledge of what they know works, together with what is now available and accessible, to drive health transformations through diet and exercise. She wrote:

“Hope For Health Arnhem Land is based on traditional food and law and is an opportunity to encourage my people to eat the right food. To listen to the songs and dances merged with an understanding of Balanda foods and knowing how they fit into the Yolŋu systems.”

An article on The Conversation also explored issues around diet and health in Aboriginal communities, after a study showed that providing a subsidised fruit and vegetable scheme to low-income Aboriginal families in northern NSW improved children’s health and significantly reduced antibiotic use.

And an item on ABC Radio National covered new research that suggests there could be a link between high levels of nitrate in drinking water and long-term health problems including diabetes and kidney disease in communities in WA’s remote Western Desert.

This article on Croakey by Amanda Bresnan, Executive Director of Community Mental Health Australia, urged a new approach to mental health following a recent roundtable in the remote Northern Territory town of Tennant Creek. It argued that if policy initiatives were to have a chance of improving health and wellbeing, the community must be supported to develop its own approaches.

Communication between health care professionals and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was the focus of an article in the Medical Journal of Australia, in which, Dr Rob Amery, head of linguistics at the University of Adelaide, said communication difficulties were “under-rated and under-researched” and had a significant impact on health outcomes.

Another issue faced by girls and women in Australia’s remote Aboriginal communities was raised on The Conversation, after a report found that basic sanitary products can be “unaffordable, unavailable or too shameful to buy”, and that girls are missing school during their periods. Author Nina Lansbury Hall wrote:

“Access to sanitary items, water and washing facilities, as well as education about menstruation are basic human rights. Water and toilets are essential for women to manage menstruation. Yet it’s shocking to find not all Australians enjoying the same access to these fundamentals.”

The ABC reported that a large-scale inquest into the suicides of 13 Aboriginal and young people in the WA Kimberley region had been dubbed a “mockery to Aboriginal people” by Member for Kimberly Josie Farrer, who said there was not enough support to allow those at the heart of the problem to step forward.

And the National Indigenous Times reported on a new $1 million Aboriginal family wellbeing training program announced by the WA Government, that is aimed at preventing self-harm and suicide in Kimberly, Pilbara and Goldfields areas by strengthening families.


It’s infectious

The rise of superbugs has been making news, with the ABC reporting on a drastic increase in antibiotic resistant gonorrhoea, which accounted for more than 60% of the 1000 cases of superbugs reported across Australia in the last 12 months.

The news came as a paper in The Lancet revealed that New Zealand researchers had shown that the meningococcal B vaccine could also offer gonorrhoea protection, as reported by the BBC and The Conversation.

Also on the vaccination front, the Public Health Association of Australia welcomed the Federal Government’s announcement that free catch-up vaccines for people aged under 19 years will be expanded for the first time to include refugees and humanitarian entrants into Australia of all ages.

Vaccine-preventable measles outbreaks across Europe had claimed the lives of 35 people in the past year, in what the World Health Organization dubbed an “unacceptable tragedy”. It urged countries to focus on sustained high immunisation coverage, the BBC reported.

Closer to home, a rise in flu-like illness has caused major delays in ambulance transfers and hospitals admissions in Sydney’s south west, The Sydney Morning Herald reported.


Other Croakey News you may have missed this fortnight:

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