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Wednesday, 20 June 2001
Page: 28243


Dr WOOLDRIDGE (Minister for Health and Aged Care) (6:26 PM) —The member for Kingston raised a serious concern. I will attempt to give him a serious reply. One of the difficult things about being minister for health is that, even for someone who might be medically qualified such as me, it is hard to form a view about technology. It is hard to form a view on highly technical matters. Similarly, the PBS, which I will come to in a second, is another highly technical matter.

What you tend to do is take the view of experts. This is proper. You set up expert committees. You try and get a range of views and then you try and force an expert committee to come to a consensus and give you a view. There will always be another expert who has a different view. We have seen it recently with the listing of the pharmaceutical Zyban and a researcher in Sydney getting a lot of publicity for taking one point of view yet the balance of opinion on my expert committee was to the contrary.

The whole MRI process has been debated at very great length. But I guess, given the way it played out and given the behaviour of some in the area, the capacity for me to do anything other than take expert advice is very limited. I set up an expert committee under Professor Blandford. At no time did I seek to influence the outcome of that committee's deliberations. I asked them what their expert view would be on the further extension of this new technology. We have substantially increased it in the last five years, even if some of it was by accident rather than design. Off the top of my head, I think you are looking at around $3 million per machine. The demand is limitless, so the only way you can try and put some cost control on it is to put some controls around the supply.

South Australia has three machines. Had the expert committee said to me, `Every children's hospital in Australia needs one of these,' I would have done everything I could to have implemented that. But that is not what the expert advice was. Again, unfortunately, in health care you find professionals who will use the public or use a particularly compelling case to try and argue for their own personal benefit. I am sure every radiological department in Australia would like one of these, but they are not going to get it unless the Commonwealth is prepared to chip another $100 million or so into radiologists' incomes. I am not sure that is the best use of public money.

In the specific case of South Australia, there are three funded machines. I accept completely what the honourable member says, that it necessitates a trip from time to time from one hospital to another to get a funded scan. I think that is probably a lot cheaper than putting a whole lot of extra machines in. I am sorry to hear the story the honourable member tells about his constituent child dying of cancer. It is an enormously traumatic thing. It does sound, in this case, given that he died three weeks later, it would have made very little difference one way or the other.

I would be very roundly criticised by the opposition were I to act other than in accordance with the way my experts have advised me. So I am damned if I do, and damned if I do not. I sleep okay at night because I know that I have not attempted to influence a committee. I have asked for the advice of experts and this is what they have given me. It is always open another time for another committee to come back.

On the issue of the state hospitals, of course it is open to a state government at any point in time to put a machine into its own hospital. It does not need Commonwealth authority or approval. There are a few spare machines going cheap around Australia if a state government wished to do that. I do not mean to single out South Australia because all the states behave similarly in this—they would rather blame the Commonwealth—but they could have a machine in a week in that hospital if they saw that as being the highest priority in the state for their health care. On the honourable member for Bruce's comments about the PBS, I agree with that study. Of course, he can point to no single occasion in the 5½ years I have been minister of my having sought to interfere with, or alter the outcome of, expert committees' deliberations.