25 September 2017 Register to receive our free newsletter by email each week
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Investing in better health by spending more on research

A federal government-commissioned review of health and medical research has called for additional spending of up to A$3 billion (US$3 billion) a year to be spent on health and medical research in Australia over the next 10 years.

The government established the review panel following widespread protests by medical researchers across the country earlier this year, when it was feared the National Health and Medical Research Council, or NH&MRC was facing an A$400 million cut in its budget.

A report of the review, in the form of a consultation paper to allow for further comments and submissions, lists 21 recommendations on how to strengthen the health and medical research sector and improve the integration of research with the nation’s healthcare system.

The report says its key recommendation of up to A$3 billion a year boost in research funding would be possible by redirecting at least 3% of the government’s public sector health budget to research that “improves the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of disease, and brings efficiencies to the delivery of healthcare”.

The report says the NH&MRC should be reorganised to take a leadership role in the health and medical research sector, improving support and flexibility to make health and medical research a more attractive career path, and providing incentives to drive investment from high-end philanthropists.

The panel suggests between 10 and 20 "integrated health research centres" be established that would bring together hospital networks, universities and medical research institutes to fast-track discoveries that would bring the greatest benefits to patients.

Although Australia’s health system compares well with other countries' in terms of life expectancy, the cost is escalating at an unsustainable rate, the review committee says, noting that there is a significant opportunity to reduce inefficiency and improve performance.

Australia’s national expenditure on health is estimated to be more than A$130 billion in 2011-12, the report says. Of this, total government expenditure is more than A$90 billion, or 7% of GDP. But spending will grow to more than A$450 billion, or 13% of GDP, by 2049-50, according to federal Treasury projections.

Simply increasing healthcare expenditure does not necessarily lead to improved health outcomes, the panel says.

For developed countries, there is little correlation between total health system spending and health outcomes such as life expectancy. A more strategic investment approach is required to improve outcomes and control costs.

Professor Doug Hilton, director of the medical research Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, who initiated the campaign for more research funding, said the review panel had produced an astute vision for how health and medical research should be conducted in Australia.

“They have been realistic and fiscally prudent in their recommendations, ensuring they can be adopted without significant additional expenditure,” Hilton said.

“In the future, the proposed changes would bring about substantial economic benefits from the lowered healthcare costs and improved productivity that comes from health and medical research. I urge the government and opposition to commit to fully adopting the review’s recommendations.”

The report is based on submissions from more than 300 individuals and organisations. It also recommends:

  • Creating up to 1,000 competitive practitioner fellowships for leading clinicians that would allow them to spend 50% of their time on research and lead to improvements in patient care.
  • Supporting research into diseases that most affect Australians as well as into indigenous health, rural and remote health, and the developing field of personalised medicine.
  • Providing higher stipends to students in receipt of Australian Postgraduate Awards, as well as for those awarded early investigator grants.
  • Re-engineering the granting process administered by the NH&MRC so applications are streamlined and the proportion of five-year grants increased.
  • Attracting new investment in research by better commercialising Australian research discoveries, and promoting philanthropic investment in health and medical research.

Following further submissions, the panel's final report is expected to be presented to the government before the end of the year.
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