Australia's ageing population, the growing burden of chronic illness, and a shrinking medical workforce are all hot topics for the coming election, according to a review of health policy in the latest Medical Journal of Australia.
In the lead up to the federal election for 2007, the Journal has published articles from the Minister and Shadow Minister for Health and from leading health policy experts.
Professor Stephen Leeder at the University of Sydney, and his co-authors say that the next Government will face a number of health care challenges, including changing disease patterns, increasing costs for patients, health workforce shortages, and inequalities of health among Indigenous populations.
'Australia's high average life expectancy and low infant mortality rate are under threat as our health system is stretched by an ageing population, the growing burden of chronic illness, and the increasingly outmoded organisation of our health services,' Professor Leeder says.
'The health care system must focus on prevention and better management of chronic illness by targeting populations with the greatest need, establishing better links between primary, acute and rehabilitative services, and developing new ways to deliver care to rural and remote communities.'
'The search for effective and lasting solutions will require public consultation... issues of bureaucratic and fiscal responsibility can then follow.'
But in his contribution for the Journal, Minister for Health and Ageing, Mr Tony Abbott, says Australia does not need radical experiments in health care delivery and instead advocates refinements and improvements to build on existing strengths.
'Our greatest strength is the dedication and professionalism of Australia's health staff, who can invariably be trusted to act in their patients' best interests,' Mr Abbott says.
Mr Abbott says the four key challenges to Australia's health systems are affordability of services, expansion of the health workforce to meet the needs of an older population, treatment of chronic disease in the community instead of in hospitals, and the integration of complex services in care delivery.
Shadow Minister for Health, Ms Nicola Roxon, says a reform process is needed to end the 'blame game' between the states and the Commonwealth, to better equip the health system for future needs, and to emphasise preventive health care.
'A national, coordinated strategy has been lacking from Australia's health system for far too long,' Ms Roxon says.
She says change is needed to tackle challenges to the health system and to deliver services that put the needs of the patient over issues of funding.
President of the Federal AMA, Dr Rosanna Capolingua, says the current health system provides for the community to a degree, but needs strengthening across the rural sector, public hospitals, public health education, indigenous health and the training of doctors.
'The AMA wants to ensure that the health system is capable of serving the Australian community into the next decade,' Dr Capolingua says.
'The public sector is currently lagging behind.'
'The weaknesses of the Australian health system largely have arisen because governments have not invested sufficiently in the health of the nation.'
'The system needs to incorporate the input of clinicians in management, a recognition that there has been growth in demand, and more strategically targeted and audited funding and resources.'
'The continuing balance between public and private sectors, the focus on high quality training of doctors in to the future, and the preservation of clinical independence for patient care will serve Australia well going forward.'
'This needs policy commitments and funding, not experimental concepts that may deny patients quality and safety and appropriate care.'
The Medical Journal of Australia is a publication of the Australian Medical Association.