Picture of Health

ACT Health

In many ways, Canberra and the Australian Capital Territory are particularly favoured in comparison to other states. In particular, this community currently enjoys one of the best life expectancies and health statuses of any jurisdiction in Australia, rendering the ACT one of the healthiest communities in the world.

The nature of the ACT means its health authorities do not face all of the challenges posed by regional and rural communities, while the population of nearly 400,000 has near-ideal demographics and is younger than the national average.

But, according to Linda Kohlhagen, that is no excuse for complacency and it is imperative that healthcare and infrastructure should move along and more than keep pace with social development. Linda is Executive Director of ACT Health, and she shares that, “We have fewer old people within our jurisdiction but we do have an ageing population. However, it is reasonably healthy and well-educated.”

ACT Health is all public sector. “We have a very comprehensive public health system that has both the acute sector and a well developed community health centre network and community-based services,” Linda explains. “We work collaboratively with our GP colleagues and other private providers, including private hospitals. That is one of the features of a well developed health service. An individual GP plays an important role in the well-being of the people.”

Dr Anil Paramadhathil is a specialist in geriatric medicine and a senior administrator at ACT Health. He says he is pleased that there is none of the competition or friction between public and private sectors in the ACT that is sometimes seen elsewhere (notably in the UK, where the whole public health service concept started). “I think we both co-exist very happily and work together with the same goals in mind. Many of the private hospitals are located very close to public hospitals and sometimes use their services as well.”

ACT Health is no exception to the rule that there is never enough money available – with the corollary that there is always some new area of medicine to invest in that will save lives or enhance the quality of life for patients. “Our role is to ensure we provide services that are efficient and effective,” says Linda, “and which reflect the needs of individuals. Demand for healthcare and social care is endless. We have a very supportive government with a substantial commitment to infrastructure changes that are occurring within our organisation, and I think we – and the community – are quite blessed to have a government committed to providing good health care.”

Despite its web-savvy population (did you know Canberrans use the internet more than the people of any other state?), the local community continues to need nudging toward the concept of taking more care over their dietary and exercise regimes.

There always has been a focus on healthy living and preventive care. “No-one actually wants to fall ill or be unwell,” says Dr Paramadhathil. So, like other administrations, ACT Health has taken action to promote healthy eating in the Towards Zero Growth Healthy Weight Action Plan, starting with its own staff and facilities, to improve the availability of healthy food and drink choices in the workplace.

According to acting ACT Health director-general Dr Paul Kelly, “Making healthy food and drink choices more readily available to ACT Health staff, volunteers and visitors is a simple step we can take to assist people make healthy choices every day.” The policy is based on national guidelines and classifies foods into green (best choices), amber (select carefully), and red (limit). The majority of food and drinks provided at ACT Health facilities and events will be green and no more than twenty per cent of red products will be available from food outlets and vending machines. “The policy will be progressively implemented over the next twelve months, allowing staff, food outlets and vending machine suppliers sufficient time to make the necessary changes. ACT Health will be providing educational materials and support to help the transition. The first step will be to increase the healthy options available in the vending machines in ACT Health facilities,” says Dr Kelly.

“We see this as an important initiative to contribute to improving our knowledge of and access to healthy food and drink choices. This is part of tackling poor diet, overweight and obesity which are major causes of chronic disease and disability.” Indeed, a surprising two thirds (63.6 per cent to be precise) of ACT adults are overweight or obese, and “the implications of this are serious for individuals and their families, for communities, for our health system and economy. ACT Health employs a large workforce and delivers services to a substantial proportion of the ACT population and we are committed to the health of our staff and visitors and to leading by example.”

The large number of overweight adults may come as a surprise given the Capital Territory’s abundance of recreational facilities, and the encouragement to all citizens to exercise. To this end, ACT Health maintains a “Get Healthy Information and Coaching Service”, a free confidential, telephone based service to support people in making changes regarding healthy eating, being physically active and achieving and maintaining a healthy weight.

While Dr Paramadhathil stresses that cost saving is hardly the main point of such programs, it is clearly highly cost-effective to promote an agenda of preventive measures that reduce the need for treatment. “They are not driven by budgets but about what is best for us as individuals,” Linda adds. “It is in my best interests to ensure that I eat properly and do enough exercise.”

The ageing of the population is an issue increasingly on the minds of politicians. Linda says the aim is for older people to be able to remain in their own home, or social environment, for as long as possible, without the need for relocation to ‘a residential facility’ of whatever sort. Even if it’s an excellent facility, for most people it’s not the same. Accordingly, a lot of the body’s work is directed to ensuring the home is properly set up for gradually ageing people to live in: “things like removing mats from corridors, making sure there is helpful equipment in kitchens, good lighting and sensible shoes.”

Dr Paramadhathil says that with appropriate planning, and the cooperation of all concerned, there is no good reason why the ACT should not be able to provide the facilities to cope with the projected skyrocketing of the aged population (a quarter of Australians will be 65 or older by 2050 – double the current percentage). Linda agrees, adding, “It should not only be an expansion of what we currently have. We also need to look at new and emerging health workforce roles as well.”

ACT’s health system also faces the usual challenges related to the impact of new technologies, escalating international skilled workforce shortages and increasing consumer demands and expectations. Nonetheless, with the aim of meeting future demand, a billion dollar ten-year plan was put in place in 2008. Already, major projects such as the Adult Mental Health Unit; Stage One of the Centenary Hospital for Women and Children; “Duffy House” (a home-away-from-home for regional cancer patients and their carers staying in Canberra for treatment); and the Gungahlin Community Health Centre have been completed. In late March, the expansion and refurbishment of the Tuggeranong Community Health Centre was unveiled; other current major projects include the Belconnen Community Health Centre; the Canberra Region Cancer Centre; Stage Two of the Centenary Hospital for Women and Children; and the expansion of ED/ICU at Canberra Hospital.

While these large and welcome projects keep Linda and her team busy, so do more mundane healthcare necessities. From factsheets (on everything from Anthrax to Viral Gastroenteritis) to feeding teenagers, advice is available to Canberrans on every aspect of ways to stay out of the ACT Health facilities – as well as how to prosper if they are ever required. The capital city is, as ever, a picture of health.

For more information about ACT Health, please visit http://www.health.act.gov.au/c/health

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December 12, 2017, 10:56 PM AEDT

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