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Wednesday, 19 March 2008
Page: 1255

Senator CAROL BROWN (12:45 PM) —I rise to speak today on a matter of public interest which currently affects one in two households in Australia and is a major cause of chronic pain and disability. It is estimated that around 3.85 million, or one in five, Australians suffer from some form of arthritis, which is one of the country’s most prevalent diseases. While generally considered an older person’s disease, arthritis can and does affect Australians of all ages. Statistics show that some 60 per cent, or 2.4 million, arthritis sufferers in Australia are of working age. Indeed, infants as young as 18 months have also been diagnosed with a juvenile form of arthritis. In Australia arthritis conditions are more prevalent among females. Over two million females, 19.9 per cent, and 1.8 million, 17.1 per cent, males are estimated to have arthritis.

Arthritis is an umbrella term given to more than 100 various medical conditions which affect the joints, specifically where two bones meet. While the most common forms of arthritis are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, all forms have the potential to limit the quality of life for sufferers, often having a debilitating and painful effect on everyday life. When describing his well-known battle with reactive arthritis to Andrew Denton, Australian musician Daniel Johns said that in his case:

... the arthritis just went from bad to worse, and went through all of the bones in my body, through my spine, up into my neck ... I just couldn’t move ... Couldn’t have a shower ’cause the water pressure felt like it was cracking my spine.

Thankfully, after 12 months of rehabilitation treatment, Johns was able to make a recovery. However, talk to other sufferers of arthritis and Johns’s story is not so unfamiliar. While you do not die from arthritis, it can be a life sentence. With my own mother suffering from the disease, I have witnessed firsthand the pain and discomfort that can stem from the disease.

The physical and emotional effect of living with arthritis was detailed in a study published in 2004 by Arthritis Australia, the peak body for arthritis sufferers in Australia. Known as The voice of arthritis, the study revealed that for people living with arthritis its effects can be painful, disabling and long lasting and can flow well beyond the physical. It found that arthritis can have a negative impact on family, personal and even sexual relationships. It can directly affect a sufferer’s ability to participate in work and can even limit their lifestyle choices. Just last year, Arthritis Australia prepared a report titled Painful realities, which examined the economic impact of arthritis in Australia. In preparing the report for Arthritis Australia, Access Economics sourced data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ National health survey and survey of disability, ageing and carers, as well as from various publications and databases from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. It found last year that the total cost of arthritis to the Australian economy is estimated to be at $23.9 billion, an increase of more than $4 billion on the costs calculated by Access Economics in 2004. It found that almost half of this was due to non-financial costs associated with the burden of the disease, while direct costs associated with impact on the health system, including hospitals, pharmaceuticals and aged care, accounted for 20 per cent. Interestingly, a further 17 per cent of total costs were productivity costs associated with the impact that the disease was having on employment and workforce participation in Australia.

While 60 per cent of sufferers are of working age, the direct impact on the workplace that this condition is having cannot be ignored. Most importantly, however, was the finding by Access Economics that the main bearers of the costs associated with arthritis in Australia were the individual sufferers themselves, who, it is estimated, carry approximately 61 per cent of the total cost—largely from being the bearers of the disease. These figures prove two things. Firstly, the impact that arthritis is having on peoples’ lives and the Australian economy cannot be ignored. With over 3.85 million Australians suffering from the disease, it is costing the Australian economy $23.9 billion last year alone. This disease is having a real and significant impact on individuals and the nation. Secondly, unfortunately, the biggest bearers of the costs associated with the disease are the sufferers themselves.

Obviously, more needs to be done. As a part of its national strategy, Arthritis Australia has identified a number of key goals which it sees as crucial for improving the lives of those people suffering from arthritis and in turn reducing the impact that the condition is having on the wider community and the economy. It aims, in collaboration with its state and territory affiliates, to promote awareness of the disease, to encourage early diagnosis and early intervention and also to improve and preserve sufferers’ quality of life. This is because Arthritis Australia believes that for sufferers of arthritis ‘living a lesser quality of life is not an option’. The Rudd Labor Government is committed to assisting those people in need, and a number of initiatives contained in its suite of health policies are likely to ease the burden on sufferers of arthritis and their families and to assist in the early intervention and ongoing treatment of the disease.

The Labor government is committed to building a modern health and hospital system equipped to meet the health challenges of the future, including an ageing population, the rising burden of chronic disease and the ever-increasing costs associated with medical technologies. That is why prior to the election the government announced a comprehensive long-term plan for health reform in this country, including a $2.5 billion commitment to improve the health of and hospital system for all Australians. As is the case with many other public resources, hospitals are constantly underfunded and ignored. Now, as a result of the funding announcement by the Rudd Labor government, we will be able to move on.

At the first Australian Health Minsters Conference it was agreed that there is a need for building and reporting on a comprehensive set of performance measures across the entire health system to try to get things right. The meeting identified areas that require the immediate focus of the Commonwealth as well as the state and territory ministers. These included shifting the focus to preventative care and taking the pressure off hospitals; improving the experience of people using the health system; bringing the different aspects of the system together so that hospitals, ambulatory care, primary and community care have clear funding, role delineations and paths of engagement; and building new models of care based on patient experience. All of these priorities, particularly the focus on preventative care and bringing together different aspects of the health system—in the case of the GP superclinics, housing them all under the one roof—will no doubt assist in improving the rates of early detection and the ongoing management of arthritis in Australia.

Since forming government last November, the Rudd Labor government has wasted no time in taking action to improve outcomes in the health and hospital system in Australia. As the Prime Minister stated in his First 100 days report:

The Government is committed to ending the waste, duplication and cost-shifting in our health system and replacing it with improved health services and better hospitals so working families receive the services they deserve.

As a result, in the past three months the Rudd Labor government has taken immediate and decisive action to directly improve health and hospital services in Australia. It has: (1) invested $150 million to fund 25,000 elective surgery places, to assist states and territories to conduct an immediate national blitz on elective surgery waiting lists to ensure that elective surgery patients are treated within the clinically recommended time—this initiative will no doubt enable people waiting for joint replacements to receive their new hip or knee and return to leading a fulfilling life; (2) recently established the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission, to be chaired by Dr Christine Bennett, to develop a long-term national reform plan for the nation; (3) helped tackle the chronic health services shortages in our hospitals by commencing a rollout of cash bonuses for nurses to attract them back to the workforce—it is hoped that this will result in up to 1,000 nurses returning to the hospital workforce by the end of this year alone, with the Rudd government committing to bring 7,500 extra nurses into the Australian workforce in the next five years; (4) invested $124 million in new medical and health research projects; (5) commenced negotiation on the implementation of the new Commonwealth Dental Health Program, which will provide $290 million over three years to support up to one million additional consultations—an area that has previously been severely neglected; (6) commenced implementation planning for the GP superclinics to provide essential primary care services and reduce the burden on our hospitals; and (7) established the Health and Ageing Work Group, through COAG, to ensure the effective implementation of new Commonwealth programs.

Health is an area that this government has flagged as one of national priority. As a result, the Rudd Labor government has already taken decisive action to help improve outcomes in the national health and hospitals system and is committed to taking further action over the next three years to significantly improve the services and infrastructure available. The Rudd Labor government is committed to establishing a new healthcare and hospital system which is patient focused and well equipped to provide them with world-class treatment and care. It is also committed to taking a new approach to health care in this country—one which is increasingly focused on prevention and improving the general health and wellbeing of all Australians, which in turn will result in removing some of the burden on our hospitals. These measures, along with the others yet to be rolled out, will no doubt assist in the early intervention and management of arthritis. The shift in focus to preventative health care will help with early intervention but it will also assist with identifying the lifestyle factors and conditions—such as obesity—which are contributing to the ever-increasing rates of arthritis, particularly in younger people.

While in 2002 arthritis was made a national health priority and its prevalence today is higher than any other health priority, it appears the condition has not to date attracted the attention that it deserves. As with so many other generally non-life-threatening conditions, it is more often than not overlooked and sufferers are expected to simply ‘live’ with the condition. However, with the prevalence of the condition only set to increase and other health conditions such as the growing obesity epidemic adding to this, the disease can no longer be ignored.

Indeed, Access Economics has estimated that by 2050 some seven million Australians, or 23.9 per cent of Australia’s projected population, will suffer from the disease. In light of this, Arthritis Australia has embarked on a campaign to promote awareness of the disease to assist in early diagnosis and early intervention and to assist in improving and preserving sufferers’ quality of life. Arthritis Australia believes that living a lesser life, as sufferers of arthritis often do, is not an option and it is determined to enlist the support of governments, rheumatologists, GPs and other health professionals to create a coordinated approach aimed at creating awareness about the disease and shifting community attitudes toward it.

This push is why a number of us have decided to join forces to establish the first ever Parliamentary Friends of Arthritis Group. The purpose of this bipartisan group—which I will co-convene along with Jim Turnour MP, member for Leichhardt; Senator Judith Adams, senator for Western Australia; Senator Rachel Siewert, senator for Western Australia; and the Hon. Kevin Andrews MP, member for Menzies—is to develop a formal process to deliver our parliamentary colleagues with up-to-date information on arthritis, including the measures that can be taken to assist constituents in managing the personal, social and economic impacts of the disease. The group will work in close conjunction with Arthritis Australia and is, I believe, an essential step forward in acknowledging the real impacts of arthritis and assisting sufferers in managing the impacts of the disease on their everyday life.

Since indicating our intention to establish the group we have had an overwhelming response, with over 90 of our parliamentary colleagues electing to join and indicating they wish to be kept up to date with the latest information regarding the treatment and management of arthritis. This is a promising start which will translate into beginning to build a national coordinated approach to increasing awareness of arthritis and ultimately better outcomes for its management for sufferers and their families.

The group will be officially launched tomorrow morning at a breakfast from 7.30 am to 9 am in the senators alcove. I would warmly invite anyone not already attending to come along to the launch. I would also urge those of you who have not already joined the group to strongly consider doing so, so that we can assist as many sufferers and their families as possible from right around the country in ensuring they have access to the most up-to-date information and services available to assist them in the management of their disease.