Key takeaways

Chronic disease in Australia is a major problem. More than 50% of Australians are suffering from at least one chronic condition, with similar statistics in the US. We need to find a better way to support people with chronic illnesses, and the first step is to understand why the current system is failing them.

In this article, we dig into the state of health of Australians, how the current healthcare system is serving them, what the key issues are with the healthcare system, and what the solution to this pandemic of chronic disease in Australia is.

A study across eight countries including Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States surveyed the quality of healthcare that individuals received within the conventional medical system. The findings were clear; most people were dissatisfied with how their healthcare was being delivered.

The majority of patients wanted a complete health care system improvement or overhaul. 57% of Australians surveyed said that fundamental changes were needed to improve the healthcare system, while 20% said it needed an entire rebuild. 

Abroad in the US, 33% of patients surveyed said the system needed a complete rebuild, with 46% saying fundamental changes were required. 

Feedback was that the fragmented healthcare system has patients seeing multiple practitioners at multiple sites, increasing the risk of error and poor care coordination. Access to physicians for healthcare was also a barrier to proper care, with 53% of those surveyed in Australia having to wait more than a month to see a specialist. 

More than half (58%) said they’d not been given a written healthcare plan to manage their health at home, and more than two-thirds (70%) hadn’t been contacted after a visit to see how they’re doing.

The study concluded with some clear initiatives: 

“Targeting the highest risk patients for outreach and follow-up care; building the evidence base for chronic care, especially for multiple conditions; and efforts to engage patients and communities with a population focus on prevention and health.”

The fundamental issue, as the paper describes, is that the current health system was initially designed to deal with isolated incidents of acute health emergencies, where a focus on preventing health deterioration or further complications was essential.

And it shows. Looking at statistics for the health of Australians, 1 in 3 health problems being managed in the healthcare system are chronic health conditions, with limited results.

The most common chronic diseases in Australia

A 2022 study that looked at the most common chronic diseases in Australia showed that nearly 1 in 2 Australians have one or more of the following chronic health conditions, and nearly 1 in 4 Australians are estimated to have two or more of these conditions:

  • Arthritis
  • Asthma
  • Back problems
  • Cancer
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Diabetes mellitus
  • Heart, stroke and vascular disease
  • Kidney disease
  • Mental and behavioural conditions
  • Osteoporosis

The same study found that more than two-thirds (67%) of Australians aged 18 and over were overweight or obese, up from 57% in 1995, which predisposes them to chronic health issues like the above. In fact, 38% of the disease burden could’ve been avoided because of preventable risk factors like smoking, living a sedentary lifestyle, poor diet, and being overweight.

With around 1 in 3 health problems managed in general practice being chronic conditions, without the proper support to address these factors, patients place a larger burden on the healthcare system, particularly because of the complex, often long duration of treatments that necessitate coordinated care and follow-ups.

On top of the pressure on the healthcare system, the impact of living with a chronic disease, and the stress of ongoing treatment, takes a mental and emotional toll on a person, reduces their quality of life, and limits their life expectancy, while also having the potential to lead to other chronic health problems.

The solution to the healthcare crisis for chronic disease

With the world's population of people aged over 60 set to almost double in the coming decades, the importance of maintaining and improving health is one of the top health priorities in Australia and abroad. By 2053 in Australia, 21% of the population will be over 65, placing an even greater burden on a healthcare system that has recently been overwhelmed since the advent of COVID-19.

In 2017, when exploring Australian health priorities for chronic disease, the Australian government endorsed a new framework that aims to provide appropriate care to people with chronic conditions. The framework includes:

  • Encouraging active engagement with a patient centred approach, empowering patients to play a key role in their health journey
  • Continuity of care, with consistent, well coordinated healthcare
  • Health services that are available, accessible, and affordable
  • Sharing of information between practitioners to build a knowledge base for treating chronic conditions as well as for prevention
  • Supportive systems that are appropriate for those with chronic health conditions, especially those with multiple comorbidities 

Thankfully, a system of healthcare exists that meets these needs now. The functional medicine approach is a patient centred chronic care model that is personalised, and aims to address the cause of a chronic condition, with a strong focus on prevention through lifestyle factors like diet, movement, and environmental factors. 

Sparked by frustration within the failing healthcare system, a group of health experts in the US including doctors, specialists, laboratory specialists, health policymakers and researchers came together in 1996 to develop an approach to healthcare that helped solve chronic illnesses. Using the latest scientific data, clinical tools and insights around chronic disease and health, functional medicine and The Institute for Functional Medicine was born.

‘Functional medicine is a way of thinking about human health and chronic disease. It’s about understanding the human body, and the relationships between everything that’s going on in a person. Through this lens, we can understand more about our patient’s health, and can tailor care to their individual needs, even treating things that don’t have a firm label or diagnosis. What’s so great about functional medicine is that it marries up the ideals of holistic healthcare with our modern understanding of how the body works, with the aim of resolving underlying health complaints. That’s the way healthcare should be done.’

Jabe Brown, MFM founder

With the expertise of behaviour specialists like health coaches that support, educate, empower and engage patients in their journey, it’s a powerful combination that we’re proud to champion here at Melbourne Functional Medicine.

So while the burden of chronic disease is heavy, there is hope. People suffering from chronic conditions can find lasting relief and improve their quality of life with the functional medicine approach.

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{ "datePublished": "Oct 12, 2023" }