Heart disease must be a priority for any government with vision

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Adj Prof John G Kelly AM

Heart Foundation National Chief Executive Officer

If there is one lesson for the Turnbull Government from the 2016 federal election, it’s this: health matters. Winging it through an election campaign without a clearly articulated vision for healthcare is clearly a hazard for any major political party.

It’s not that the Health Minister nor the Prime Minister aren’t passionate and caring about the health of the nation. They ‘clearly’ are, and they deserve credit for that.

But what was missing from the campaign was a comprehensive plan and vision for tackling the big problems confronting the nation’s health.

They should have started with the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s iconic biannual report, Australia’s Health 2014.

As that report boldly stated that ‘chronic disease is Australia’s biggest health challenge’.

With 90% of all deaths and more than 85% of the disease ‘burden’ caused by chronic disease, it must be a leading policy priority for any party aspiring to lead the nation.

Cardiovascular disease – principally heart, stroke and blood vessel disease – and cancer are the ‘big two’ when it comes to chronic disease.

Both kill large numbers of Australians. Both cause much suffering. Both have shared risk factors.

There were 45,053 deaths from cardiovascular disease (29.3% of all deaths) and 44,734 deaths from cancer (29.1% of all deaths) in 2014. Together, they cause almost 60% of all deaths.

And while governments tend to prioritise cancer, the carnage caused by cardiovascular disease (CVD) gets comparatively little attention.

Decades of declining cardiovascular disease death rates – built on the back of successful research, prevention and treatment, much of it driven by the Heart Foundation – has nurtured complacency.

But with an ageing population and a list of risk factors that are getting worse, not better, much more can and must be done by government to reduce death and suffering caused by CVD.

There are big gaps in the current approach.

  • Governments of all persuasions are not investing enough in prevention – just 1.7% of our health budgets are allocated to public health, way behind New Zealand on 7% and Canada on 5.9%.
  • Nor are they supporting general practice to detecting those at high risk of heart attacks and stroke – and ensuring they get good management to help them avoid these major killers.
  • Too few people who have had heart attacks, or are living with heart failure, get access to live-saving cardiac rehabilitation, a highly cost-effective way of helping prevent further events.
  • We should also be investing more in cardiovascular research. We can do this my ensuring the Medical Research Future Fund reflects the burden of disease when allocations start rolling out from this important new source of research funding.
  • And while good things are happening, there is much more to be done to curtail the very high rates of cardiovascular disease facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Supporting the next phase of the Lighthouse project to address the low intervention rates for Indigenous heart attack patients should be a priority.

Embracing these and other cardiovascular issues through a comprehensive ‘heart and stroke’ strategy would be a very good starting point for the new Turnbull Government.

Not only would these measures save lives and improve the quality of life for those living with heart disease, it would reduce avoidable hospital admissions, easing pressure on hard pressed health budgets. Better still, the entire package would be cost neutral or better if we used funds raised from higher health levies on tobacco, alcohol and sugary drinks.

It should be a no-brainer for any government with vision.