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The Health Wrap: Health dollars; The gap’s not closing; Our environment; Matters of influence and more

This fortnight’s 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.

Private and public health dollars

Health funding has been in the media spotlight this fortnight, with the news that Australians with private health insurance will pay almost 5 per cent more for their premiums this year after Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt signed off on an average premium rise of 4.84 per cent. The Age reported that the increase would see the top tier of family hospital cover increase to about $4,500 annually and singles cover to increase by about $100 to $1,250, while the Sydney Morning Herald reported that private health insurance premiums have jumped more than 50 per cent in less than a decade.

This piece in The Conversation, republished at Croakey with other responses to the premium rise, suggested that while there have been questions raised about the value of private health insurance, and whether the increased premiums are justified, there should be more attention paid to how we might maximise the value of the public healthcare system.

On the public health funding front, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had given the “strongest signal yet” that the government may lift the much contested Medicare rebate freeze, telling Parliament it was “open to reviewing” the indexation clause.

Dental health funding has also been in the news, with the Federal Government abandoning its planned cuts to the Child Dental Benefit Scheme amid fierce criticism from dentists’ groups. The latest Talking Teeth article at Croakey also argued why better, national data collection on oral health is necessary, comparing Australian capacity with some of the research now emerging from countries like Sweden and Denmark.

Meanwhile, the Federal Government is facing demands to implement national policies to tackle both obesity and dementia, with lobby groups warning of dire consequences if the no action is taken.

ABC News reported that Alzheimer’s Australia had called for a national strategy to combat dementia, after launching a report that estimated the condition would cost Australia $18 billion a year by 2025 unless action was taken.

And Chair of the Council of Presidents of Medical Colleges (CPMC) Professor Nick Talley, writing in the MJA, warned that the lack of a coordinated national policy on obesity was unacceptable and urged the Federal Government to adopt as national policy a six point plan put together at an obesity summit crisis last year. He wrote:

“Reversing the obesity pandemic will be a long journey, but it is time now that Australian health care professionals, organisations training future health care professionals, and government at all levels begin looking at what we can do together; the six-point plan is a start. The current lack of a coordinated national approach is not acceptable.”

The six point plan includes implementing a sugar tax, a move backed by new research from the University of Melbourne showing that such a tax could lead to longer lives and save $3.4 billion in healthcare costs if introduced together with other measures encouraging healthier eating, as reported by ABC News.

The researchers, writing in Croakey and The Conversation, said at least 13 countries had announced new taxes on sugary drinks or unhealthy foods over the past five year to address the enormous and growing burden of obesity and its associated chronic diseases, and urged Australia to follow suit.

Meanwhile, Croakey has pulled together here some of the many #HealthPolicyValentines messages shared on Twitter, with rhyming couplets on everything from climate change and mental health to preventive health care.


The gap’s not closing

Tabling the ninth annual Closing the Gap report in Parliament, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull revealed slow progress on improving the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, conceding the Government was not on track to meet six out of seven of its targets, including those on child mortality and life expectancy, according to the report card.

“We have not come far enough,” Mr Turnbull said.

The report sparked widespread concern among Indigenous health groups, as outlined by NACCHO, and Croakey reported that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders were calling on Mr Turnbull to match his rhetoric with strong commitments in the forthcoming Federal Budget and progress on key asks in the blueprint Redfern Statement.

The report was released after former Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd warned that Australia faces the risk of a “second stolen generation” due to ever-increasing rates of Indigenous children being removed from their homes and placed in out-of-home care.

As reported by The Guardian, Mr Rudd argued in a speech delivered on the anniversary of his 2008 apology to the stolen generations that the Government should set a new target of seeing 100 per cent of Indigenous children placed with their extended family or community if they need to be removed from home.

“What I am sure of is that we cannot simply stand back and let the numbers of Indigenous children being removed grow year by year, without other options being tested within the wider Indigenous community” he said. “We do not want another generation of young Aboriginal children unnecessarily separated from their culture. We do not want to see the emergence of a second stolen generation, not by design, but by default.”

Writing on Buzzfeed, Allan Clarke detailed how the #OurKidsBelongWithFamily social media campaign demanding action on the growing number of Indigenous children in out-of-home care was gaining momentum, with hundreds of people, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, posting photos of themselves using the hashtag.

And ABC News reported ongoing calls from the Greens and Labor, echoing those of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders and organisations, for new targets to be introduced to reduce the number of Indigenous Australians in jail, saying that it was impossible to close the gap until the issue of high Indigenous incarceration rates was addressed.


Matters of influence

The art of communicating science effectively is a topic of widespread discussion, with a new paper in the Sax Institute journal Public Health Research & Practice focusing how to communicate public health risks in cases like vaccination, or fluoridation, where the health risk is low, but public concern remains high. Describing her research in The Conversation, Dr Claire Hooper from the University of Sydney said common strategies such as dismissing people’s worries as baseless, or trying to debunk “alt-facts”, were among the least effective ways of communicating public health risks.

The Conversation also explored the debate over scientists’ role as advocates in this article, which looked back in history to remember two physicists who raised their voices against world and local events in their time, while The Australian (paywalled) reported on a call to stop using abbreviations when communicating science, as it served only to alienate people.

The explosion of “junk journals” and their tactics in targeting researchers for papers was the topic of an article on The Conversation by Professor Simon Chapman, who detailed his own experience in responding to a “flattering email” from the editor of one such publication.

With research in the spotlight, Croakey reported on concerns raised by Dr Kerry Breen that a revised version of the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research that is currently open for public comment includes changes that “turn back the clock” and put the interests of universities before those of the Australian public.

Also on matters of influence, an ABC News investigation revealed that pharmaceutical companies are spending millions marketing new blood-thinning medications to doctors, raising concerns the potentially risky drugs are being prescribed to some patients who may not need them.

The ABC followed up with a story about changes to public reporting rules around drug companies “wining and dining” of doctors.This will mean the industry will only publish names of individual doctors and the “transfers of value” they receive for things like speaking events and trips to conferences and will no longer be required to report food and beverage spending, with a $120 meal cap now applying to hospitality.

Epidemiologist Professor John Attia from the Hunter Medical Research Institute said the changes were a step backwards.

“If they [pharmaceutical companies] were really serious about education, they would all put their money into a central education fund and that would be dispersed at arm’s length for sponsoring independent education,” he said.

Meanwhile, the ABC’s latest Four Corners program, “Swallowing it”, claimed Australians are spending billions on unproven vitamins and supplements and questioned pharmacists’ role in selling complementary medicines that are not evidence-based.


Our environment

As much of Australia sweltered through some of the hottest days in memory, the impact of the environment on health was a very hot topic. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on a new paper by a group of leading scientists who warned that the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) funded almost no research into climate change impacts on health, despite the issue providing “a huge challenge for the health sector”.

ABC News reported on the Climate Council’s latest report card on climate change, which found heatwaves are becoming hotter, lasting longer and occurring more often. On a related note, this article in The Conversation explored the need for a comprehensive housing approach to deal with heatwaves.

As the extreme weather conditions saw debate over renewable energy sources heat up, Croakey asked where health and climate change were in the debate, and also reviewed a new book on history, health and climate change entitled Climate Change and the Health of Nations, suggesting its readers send a copy to Presidents, Prime Ministers and Health Ministers.

Meanwhile, as part of a special series entitled “The air we breathe”The Guardian mapped out the 15 cities worldwide where exercise is likely to do more harm that good, with air pollution so bad that the danger to health of just 30 minutes of cycling each way outweighs the benefits of exercise altogether.


States of play

There was good and bad health news around the states and territories this fortnight. Both NSW and Victorian state governments have followed in the footsteps of Western Australia in announcing funding for new meningococcal vaccination programs for senior school students, in a bid to target the aggressive and potentially fatal W strain of the disease that has emerged as a growing threat.

Melbourne’s hot, wet summer has spurred an outbreak of Ross River fever, The Huffington Post reported, and The Age covered the ongoing debate on whether the city should introduce a drug injection room.

Foodbank Tasmania revealed that the state’s working poor were facing a greater struggle to put food on the table, with demand for its services jumping 60 per cent in January, compared with last year.

And The Guardian reported that the Northern Territory government had pledged more than $18 million a year to fix the “broken youth justice system“, with new youth diversionary measures aimed at addressing the high levels of youth crime and increasingly younger children ending up in detention.


Trump’s medical record

The mental health of US President Donald Trump was the topic of much media speculation, with the UK Independent reporting that 35 mental health professionals had signed an open letter warning the President’s mental state “makes him incapable of serving safely as president”. However, in a letter to the New York Times, the US chairman of the task force that wrote the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV warned against “fevered” speculation from both media and mental health professionals about  Trump’s psychological motivations and psychiatric diagnosis. He said:

“Bad behavior is rarely a sign of mental illness, and the mentally ill behave badly only rarely. Psychiatric name-calling is a misguided way of countering Mr. Trump’s attack on democracy.”

Croakey looked at whether the Trump administration would undermine evidence-based healthcare, outlining concerns raised by public health experts about issues including the dismantling of Obamacare and the reinstatement of the global abortion ‘gag rule’ in foreign aid.

And the Washington Post reported that more than 350 organisations had written to Mr Trump endorsing current vaccine safety, amid growing alarm about the President’s backing of discredited claims about vaccine safety.

The issue of vaccination was also highlighted in Bill and Melinda Gates annual letter about the work of their philanthropic organisation. Stat News reported that the letter stressed the importance of vaccines, calling them one of the best deals in global health spending, as well as highlighting how critical it was that women around the world had access to effective contraception, saying family planning lowers child mortality and enables countries to emerge from poverty.


Other Croakey reading you may have missed this fortnight:

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