Dr Tim Gill, Principal Research Fellow at the Institute of Obesity, Nutrition and Exercise, University of Sydney writes:
Tackling health problems requires reliable, independent evidence in order to be able to evaluate the impact of policies.
We know a lot about the health problems caused by poor nutrition and physical inactivity – it is estimated that these two risk factors contribute to almost one-third of the burden of illness in Australia.
But we know very little about the risk factors themselves – about patterns in peoples’ eating and activity habits and how they may be changing over time.
For years, public health experts have been urging the Federal Government to establish a regular nutrition and health survey.
Most other developed countries already do this. Even lower income countries such as the Philippines and Thailand recognise the merit of doing such surveys regularly.
But in Australia, the last national nutrition survey was conducted in 1995. A one-off survey of children’s dietary and physical activity patterns was conducted in 2007, only after the offer of some financial support from the food industry.
A commitment from the current Government to deal with this oversight was warmly welcomed.
A host of reports and experts had urged the Government to fund regular surveys to collect good quality dietary and activity data together with limited physical measurements on a large sample of Australians. It was recommended that these be overseen by an existing central agency such as the ABS or the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare who have the experience and resources to conduct these surveys efficiently and will ensure consistency between surveys.
Additional consultations and discussions within COAG agreed that supplementary resources should be made available to assess other markers of chronic disease risk at the same time.
It seemed the sensible course of action was laid out and straightforward enough for the Government to follow.
But the recent release of a hastily prepared consultation paper on a National Health Risk Survey by the Department of Health and Ageing suggests that this is advice likely to be ignored.
The paper presents a confused model for the proposed survey and shies away from key elements of previous recommendations, including the value of the survey being managed by a central agency.
It appears key stakeholders were not involved in the development of the consultation paper and some were not even aware of its release.
The rationale for revising previous models and ignoring past advice is not apparent from the Consultation paper.
It has raised suspicions that an allocation may be made within the upcoming budget to a non government organisation to undertake this work quickly.
This may be expeditious but it would be unsatisfactory.
We have waited a long time to get another national survey of diet and physical activity behaviours in Australia and a lot of thought has gone into determining how the data could be best collected on a regular basis.
Another one-off survey which does not pay heed to this work not only compromises the quality of data it collects now, but also fails to address future health planning needs.
These can only be met by an ongoing, integrated system for monitoring nutrition, physical activity and health risk.
Why is the Government ignoring the wealth of advice it has been given about how to build such a system?