While the Rudd Government has delivered on quite a few of its pre-election commitments, obesity and dental health are two of the stand-out issues yet to be addressed in any depth.
Australia is one of the most overweight countries and both childhood and adult obesity are on the rise. Let’s not forget the range of worrying co-morbidities associated with overweight and obesity, including diabetes and heart disease, and the social, economic and health costs of these largely preventable conditions. Dental disease also worsens these chronic conditions and the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission (NHHRC), in its interim report ‘A healthier future for all Australians’, estimates that there were 50,000 avoidable hospital admissions arising from preventable dental conditions in 2004–05.
There has been some progress in tackling these issues. In late 2007 the Minister for Health, the Hon Nicola Roxon MP, attended a summit aimed at tackling childhood obesity in Australia, and outlined the new government’s commitment to making obesity prevention a National Health Priority Area. In addition, obesity was identified as a key issue at the ‘2020 Summit’. On dental health, while the NHHRC supports the principle that dentistry should be included in Medicare, the Government has failed to gain the support needed in the Senate to pass legislation for the Commonwealth Dental Plan.
Last month, the Standing Committee on Health and Ageing tabled its report on the inquiry into obesity in Australia, ‘Weighing it up: Obesity in Australia.’ It focuses on future implications for Australia’s health system and complements the National Preventative Health Taskforce process. In addition to the recently released NHHRC report ‘A healthier future for all Australians’, a number of other major reports are expected to be released in coming weeks, including those of the National Primary Health Care Strategy External Reference Group and the Preventative Health Taskforce. The Government’s response to these reports will have a significant impact on how prevention issues will be tackled and how health care services will be delivered.
The reports might also provide the impetus for the Australian Government to deliver on further important election commitments to combat obesity and the poor oral health status of many Australians. Real health care reform will require a concerted, long-term and well-resourced commitment to both obesity prevention and treatment and better and more affordable dental health care.