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Our Health System Deserves A Thorough Check-Up At This Election

29/04/2016 7:35 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:52 PM AEST
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Doctor holding stethoscope with flag series - Australia

It's highly likely that Australians will soon be called to the polls to vote in a federal election. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has indicated that a stalemate on several bills before parliament will lead him to ask for a double dissolution of parliament and send us to vote, probably mid-2016. Budgie smugglers at the polls are optional.

Australian politics has been an endless array of disappointment and disbelief over the past few years. The term 'leadership spill' is now firmly implanted in our memories. Abbott eating onions, KRudd on a swearing tirade, and then there's the helicopters... The circus is never ending.

As the election draws near, I would be pleased if our elected leaders could show some substance, as opposed to an election campaign that would be more at home in high school. As a healthcare worker, I would be thrilled to see Health get some long-overdue attention from both sides of politics.

Australian health care is a world leader and something we should be very proud of. By and large, patients are taken care of for free and are not subject to the obscene bills that result from an admission to hospital in the US.

Conversely, we have a health system that affords us the best possible care. Having volunteered in developing nations, I can attest to the fact that we have it very good here. Even back in the motherland, the UK National Health System (NHS) is facing dire times with government policies leading to industrial action as doctors and nurses fight to prop up an ailing system.

Despite this, our proud system of health care is not sustainable forever. With an ageing population, increasing prevalence of chronic disease, low morale in health workforces and non-sustainable spending, we are in danger of breaking. These are not issues that can be fixed by throwing more money at the problem. For starters, if you haven't realised yet, the lucky country isn't exactly flush with cash at the moment. But more importantly, our health-care system should be evolving with the times to be responsible, sustainable and effective.

Working on the front line, health-care workers see so much wrong with our system. Hospitals spend money on things that are not needed, such as redundant equipment or an ever-expanding mid-level management section. Ultimately, this leads to underfunding of more important things such as staff overtime (frequently denied to save cash), building repairs or even important research. We still can't fill all rural positions and retaining nurses remains an issue. One public hospital had door handles held on by duct tape and roof panels that collapsed when it rained.

I am not a politician and I am not au fait with all the ins and outs of running a hospital or a health system. However, it seems that the people in charge know nothing of either. Their performance as politicians or administrators is sorely reflective of how little they know about what goes on at the coal face.

A sustainable public health system should continue to be complemented by our private health care system. Enterprise has real possible benefits for practitioners and patients alike. However, it should not be propping up an ailing public system and creating a two-tier system where only those who can afford to pay get to negate some of the difficulties with the public sector. This is especially obvious with waiting times. Rationalising and appropriately resourcing hospitals is at the core of this problem.

Healthcare deficiency is a complex problem. Nobody knows the extent of how bad it is due to data holes, and this is amplified by the dual responsibility of state and federal governments for our hospitals. It's an opportunity for both parties to say 'not my problem' when confronted with a difficulty.

Given the amount of wasteful spending in hospitals and other government departments, this is not going to be fixed with more cash. More money in health is a band-aid solution. I know about band-aids, trust me. What is actually needed is a proper look at the way the health-care system is run, in partnership with all stakeholders, to discover where inefficiencies lie, freeing up people, resources and money for where it is actually needed.

The health portfolio is no doubt a tough gig. Politicians need to heed the work of those in the trenches when we advise them and tell them that what they are doing is not sustainable. This election, I for one will be listening out for the politician who commits a real action plan to improving the health care system for generations to come.

Isn't it time that we start demanding more of our elected leaders? Instead of parliamentary pajama parties, how about they make 2016 the year when they actually start representing the communities and what we need now and in the future.

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