The Westfund Regional Health Gap Report provides compelling evidence for the need for a fundamental shift to proactive, preventive health care and new forms of care delivery in Australia’s regions.
The challenge is clear. Chronic conditions such as obesity, cancer, arthritis, diabetes, and mental health challenges compound risk and contribute to the escalation of healthcare needs and treatment costs. Nationally, research has put the current cost of avoidable hospital admissions for chronic conditions at $320 million each year.
In Australia’s regional and rural areas, the impacts of these conditions are even greater. People who live outside urban areas experience higher risk factors and more chronic conditions. They are also more likely to be admitted to hospital, and have higher rates of potentially avoidable deaths. For example, women who live in very remote areas have a 1.5x higher rate of death than their city counterparts.
This research, which was conducted exclusively for Westfund using claims data over a seven-year period, confirms these reports. The analysis highlights significant differences in disease prevalence and healthcare access across regions, including notable gaps to healthcare services in some regions. The importance of physical accessibility, financial affordability, and willingness to seek services providing quality health care cannot be understated.
Obesity is becoming more prevalent, especially in younger populations. Westfund members with high BMI (>30) incur additional costs of up to 40 per cent more than the average member at each hospital admission, regardless of the treatment modality. Worryingly, this trend is expected to increase. While often stigmatised, obesity has recently been recognised by the WHO as an official chronic condition,3 and the rise in prevalence and costs affects us all through Australia’s taxation system and the private health insurance industry’s community rating system.
While the fallout of COVID-19 is still unfolding, it is clear there will be an enduring impact on the burden of disease. Missed or delayed screening has led to patients receiving treatment at more advanced stages of the disease, compounding health conditions–especially for high-risk individuals. Our research highlights worrying trends around mental health and heart disease treatment, which could lead to future cost increases. While health funds did not fund COVID-19 measures directly, the long-term impacts could mean they end up paying the bill.
As Australians age and carry a higher burden of disease, healthcare costs will rise. Pre-emptive measures and early intervention are essential to reduce healthcare costs and improve health outcomes. A better understanding of individual risk factors, preventive health care to promote healthy lifestyles, and early detection, will allow for timely interventions to prevent disease progression. It is a more efficient approach that allows for better health outcomes while reducing the burden on the healthcare system.
Westfund is committed to playing a larger role in reducing the health and well-being gap in Australia’s regional areas. We are calling for healthcare providers and policymakers to prioritise preventive measures and expand quality digital delivery to reduce costs and improve outcomes.