(Originally published at EisenhowersLastSmoke.com on 7/7/2013)
My first question to Australian Eisenhower Fellow David Flanagan (@DavidFlanagan_) when we met on a chilly April morning in Philadelphia at the Eisenhower Fellowships opening session was uninspiring. “How cold does it get in the winter really?” Not that I was regretting my timing to visit Australia in its winter season or anything…”Let’s just say that this morning I went for a walk,” replied David, “and it was the coldest I’ve ever been in my life.” I was delighted to hear that a cool Philadelphia spring was worse than all the Australian winters of David’s life!
A few hours later, he stood up to introduce himself and explained that he believed the success of the iron-ore mining company which he had founded was based in part on the way in which they had engaged their community in the business. Not in a superficial public relations sort of way, but rather in an authentic and comprehensive manner that demonstrated a genuine respect and concern for the company’s neighbors. I leaned over to my husband who was sitting in on the introductions and said, “And that’s why I’m going to Australia!”
It seems that Australians have a culture and collective philosophy of civic engagement that transcends industry or issue. At least a subset of consumers in Australia actually believe they have a voice in issues that affect them, and that corporations and government agencies facilitate that voice. The Australian government is focused on “capacity building to enable individuals to exercise control in their environment and make appropriate health choices.” Australian health policy focuses on social determinants of well-being as well as physical and mental health, placing individual decision-making in the broadest possible context of health. The International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) is active in Australia, with certificate programs and public participation practitioner training to support government and corporate public engagement initiatives. Less obvious and more day-to-day, I’m told that when you ride in Australian taxi, you sit in the front seat, signaling equality between driver and passenger. Does that hold in the doctor-patient relationship as well?
Structurally, Australia’s health system combines a national health insurance plan, Medicare, with a private market for individual insurance, which gives subscribers more choices and more services. The government uses a mix of carrots and sticks to make sure people who can afford private “cover”, as it’s called, buy it. For example, if you buy private health insurance by age 30 you pay a lower premium for the rest of your life; each year after 31 that you sign on adds 2% more to the price of your health insurance. Moreover, high-income individuals who do not purchase private cover pay a Medicare surcharge.
And the Australians get impressive results. They spend approximately 9% of their GDP on health care, and they think it’s high. Of course, everything’s relative. Australia spends HALF what the U.S. spends on health care as a percent of GDP. Imagine what America could do with 9 points of GDP to invest in say, education, infrastructure, or technology?
Australians’ life expectancy is higher than Americans’ by about 3 years. At first blush that doesn’t sound like a lot, until you think about in terms of your own life or the lives of your loved ones. And their infant mortality is lower, at just over 4 deaths per 1000 live births compared to our 6. Again, not a huge number until you think of two American babies who don’t survive their first year despite the good fortune to be born in one of the wealthiest nations in the world.
Though the Australian system should generally be a point of pride, there is an asterisk next to the national health care record. Australia’s indigenous people, who comprise about 2% of the population, have a life expectancy approximately 15 to 20 years shorter than the national average, and disease burdens estimated at three times greater. But Australians are facing the issue. There is a campaign, for example, called Close the Gap, devoted to closing the health and life expectancy gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous Australians within a generation. The Australian Department of Human Services has developed a dedicated help line and outreach strategies for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
It should also be noted that Australians are not universally happy with their system. A doctor I contacted when I was planning my trip reported “disgust” with the way her father-in-law had been treated during a recent hospitalization. And a public involvement expert I plan to meet, Max Hardy of Twyfords ( http://www.twyfords.com.au/about-us/our-people/max-hardy) has suggested that Australia may be behind in consumer engagement. And he understands how vital it is. “Think of any challenge in our health system. Including consumers in a meaningful way is all about addressing those challenges more effectively.”
However imperfect the system may be, there should be much to learn from the Australians. As we approach 2014, approximately 12 million Americans are about to encounter the American individual market via health insurance exchanges. It’s a good time to understand what makes their individual market work, with approximately 50% of Australians buying in. Additionally, Australia manages to provide a universal safety net to provide for all citizens at a significantly lower cost. Even with that, they have marked disparities between their Aboriginal population and others, and they seem committed to doing something about the inequality. Here too, there should be much to learn about how to be sure the benefits of a high-functioning health care system accrue to low-income and minority populations, too. And with 48 meetings scheduled and counting in four cities over 15 days, I should have a lot to report. Stay tuned!
 “Busting some myths about consumer and community engagement in health decision-making,” Melissa Sweet, Croakey, Nov. 16, 2012