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Medical research fund is a real life-saver

Toby Hall - Daily Telegraph
November 2014

Recently I came across the story of Debbie, a patient from Young in regional NSW. As a 47-year-old mum stricken with MS and rapidly losing her sight and ability to walk and speak, she was destined for a life in a nursing home until she was introduced to St Vincent's Haematologist John Moore and became a participant in a novel stem cell transplant trial.

Debbie is today walking, driving and enjoying normal life as a wife and mum — living proof of the wonders of medical research and the impact it can have on society.

Indeed, across the St Vincent's campuses in Sydney and Melbourne you don't have to walk far through our patient clinics and research labs to see that we are finding solutions to some of the most intractable human disease challenges.

To ensure Australia continues to punch well above its biomedical research weight, the community should support the government's plan for a robust research funding plan to take us well into the future.

There can be no doubting that the Abbott government's proposed $20 billion medical research future fund will radically improve the wellbeing of many Australians. The problem is that its proposed major funding source — the $7 GP co-payment — will see these gains devastatingly offset by disincentivising a large proportion of our population from accessing the primary healthcare they need.

As a hospital provider we expect this policy to mean more people presenting to our emergency departments rather than visiting their GP. Or, conversely, for those who avoid seeking treatment altogether, we will literally be the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, picking up the pieces in a high-cost atmosphere that totally negates the $7 saving.

Ominously, the Grattan Institute's Stephen Duckett has calculated that every hospital visit in lieu of a GP visit will cost on average $291.

The impact of this policy will most directly hit the poorest in our society with the impost being on state governments and hospital providers to foot the bill.

Like many emergency departments throughout Australia, our inner city public hospitals see a large cohort of patients present through our emergency doors who don't access primary care.

We see them present to emergency with common conditions like cellulitis and pneumonia, so preventable through primary care interventions and oral medication but now requiring hospital admission and IV lines. We need to be incentivising these people to visit their GP.

We want to work with governments to find savings and new health funding revenue. Let's explore the significant remodelling that is needed, let's address the current layers of bureaucracy and focus on promoting a healthier community as well as better models of care for our poorest who are enduring costly chronic illnesses. By all means charge the middle classes and wealthy $7 or even more but create exceptions for those on low or no incomes and their families.

The government should be commended for coming up with a future fund that will harness the full potential of Australia's biomedical research capacity. However this should not be funded by low-income Australians avoiding GP visits.

The long-term costs of this will be borne out by chronic disease, which will start to hit us on top of the cost of an ageing population and give true meaning to the concept of taking from Peter to give to Paul.