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Innovation News

The Picture of Health


Category: Innovation News








Australia, by global standards has one of the highest quality healthcare systems in the world. However, through the growing pressures of an ageing population and changing demographics, our younger generation may not be as lucky as their parents. If trends continue, those under the age of 40 may have to fund proportionately higher healthcare costs in the future unless changes are made.

Australia’s healthcare system is heavily burdened by changing demographics and higher levels of chronic diseases. Today’s healthcare system is modelled on trends that were pertinent in the 1970’s, which never predicted emerging epidemics such as obesity, diabetes and other chronic illnesses. Since then, the population has grown by over 70 percent, people are living approximately 11 years longer, and according to the Baker Institute, Australians aged between 45 and 65 are among the most obese people in the world. These trends, among others, present new challenges for health professionals who are battling to maintain and improve healthcare quality while dealing with increased demand for services.


The need for prevention

High quality healthcare in Australia has made the population reactive towards the management of their own health. Commonly, people use healthcare services if they are ill and similarly, the system is designed primarily to service sick patients.  

The Australian healthcare system should be in the business of ‘well care’ but currently it’s dealing in ‘sick care’ because the focus is on treatment rather than prevention,” From our Picture the Future research on Australia’s healthcare in 2030, I hope that Siemens can lead the discussions towards healthcare reform to ensure Australia will be the healthiest nation in the world. In the future, Australia could eliminate hospital waiting lists and provide quality healthcare at any time across the country, with the right infrastructure and workforce.    

Currently, only two percent of Australia’s healthcare expenditure is on prevention. The majority of resources are spent treating sick patients with chronic illnesses, which are placing long term and unnecessary pressures on the system. While we still need to treat sick people, we also need a more balanced approach if we want a sustainable healthcare system.

If we educate people about their health and encourage a more proactive attitude towards self management, while equipping hospitals, community health and home care services with efficient tools and technologies, it is quite possible that Australia could be the healthiest nation in the world.


The rise of chronic illnesses

In Australia, obesity continues to be one of the greatest health challenges, with trends indicating that three quarters of the population will be obese or overweight by 2030. According to the Picture the Future research, this trend would see today’s children with two years less life expectancy by the time they reach 20 years of age. Although hard to believe, these children would have lower life expectancies than their grandparents.

Connected to obesity is the onset of Type II diabetes. Today, an estimated two million Australians are currently at risk of developing this burdensome disease. Along with cancer, mental illness, cardiovascular disease and joint disorders, Australia now needs to deal with the management of treatment, and more importantly, the prevention of chronic illnesses, currently overloading the system.

Fortunately, the majority of chronic disease cases are preventable. Take obesity – it costs Australia $58 billion in direct and indirect costs every year to treat obesity. Imagine what we could do with the extra money if we could just reduce obesity by half.


Our changing population

As the baby boomer generation reaches maturity, Australia’s age population distribution has undergone extraordinary transformation. Figure 1 shows how Australia’s population pyramid of the 1970’s has now bloated out in the higher age brackets in 2010. This trend suggests that by 2030, people aged above 65 years (as indicated by the red line) will significantly increase while births stabilise.

Figure 1


The ageing demographic means fewer people paying taxes to fund an ever growing demand for healthcare. Today, there are five working people supporting each retiree. By 2030, there’ll only be three people working to support each retiree.

This decreasing workforce will also impact on the way we deliver healthcare. For example, there’ll be more emphasis on the role that home care and community care plays in the ongoing treatment of an individual. This will free up hospitals to provide critical care to patients who really need to be there.

Today, Australian’s are waiting approximately eight hours on average for a hospital bed. Yet, with 9.3 percent of hospital admissions potentially preventable, simple measures – such as the increased connection with community and home care, and productivity improvements enabled through technology – could alleviate our health system pressures.

More importantly, the long term benefits of health and wellbeing on an individual’s productivity have been well documented in the past. A previous Medibank Private research found that a healthy worker is almost three times more productive than an unhealthy worker. This places more far-reaching implications on Australia’s approach to healthcare.


Technology’s role in delivering quality healthcare

As part of the Picture the Future research, a long-term technology blueprint was developed to provide a summary of Australia’s healthcare opportunities that could be delivered through current and emerging technologies. Here are some exciting innovations that Australians could see in the near future:

Lab-on-a-chip Similar to your credit card, Lab-on-a-chip will be able to detect subtle changes in a person’s health by analysing a drop of blood placed on the card. The chip alerts the individual or their doctor of changes in the blood which could prevent imminent diseases from occurring.

Virtual Human Modelling enables doctors to build a computer model of a person’s organs by combining imaging, gene, physiological and pathology data. Using this model, health scenarios can be modelled and tested on the individual in the virtual world. The individual can see the impacts of external effects, such as smoking, on the long term health of their organs. Similarly, the model can also simulate the effects of treatments on an individual before it is undertaken.

E-health will bring all the technologies together to improve the day-to-day running of the healthcare system and enable healthcare information to be available anywhere, anytime reducing medical errors and improving the quality of care.

Albert Goller

Former CEO, Siemens Australia

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