‘Strengthening Medicare’ – Where to from here?

After months of discussion and deliberation, the Albanese Government has released the Strengthening Medicare Taskforce Report, a twelve-page document outlining their vision for an updated and revitalised healthcare system in Australia.

In order to achieve its goal, there is the undoubtable need for change.

With medical staff requiring years of training before entering the workforce, and a constrained and highly competitive global market for skilled workers, technological innovation is poised to be at the forefront of the improved system.

Structuring key business developments and offerings around areas such as rapid diagnostics, connected care, novel sources of data and digitalisation will allow medical technology companies to drive this new age of Medicare.

Announcing the report, Health Minister Mark Butler stated that “Medicare has been the crowning achievement of our health system for 40 years, but it is time for reform. Now is the time to ensure Medicare delivers the kind of primary care Australians expect, both now and into the future.”

Backed by the $750 million Strengthening Medicare Fund, the report aims to lay the foundations for longer-term reform and investment in the primary care system. The 21 recommendations of the report are a strong start towards this commendable viewpoint.

The report focuses on four key priority areas, with specific recommendations for each.

  • Increasing access to primary care
  • Encouraging multidisciplinary team-based care
  • Modernising primary care
  • Supporting change management and cultural change

The reception the report has received from stakeholder groups has been mixed, with optimism and weariness on display in equal parts. Australian Medical Association President, Professor Steve Robson summarised the report as a “high level vision document with little detail, and potentially sets primary care on a pathway to long term reform.”

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians’ President Dr Jacqueline Small added her organisation “welcomes new thinking and innovative approaches to health system reform, but these reforms will be both ineffective and costly if they do not include specialists and will impact negatively on patients.”

Such comments underline the severity of the challenge facing Health Minister Mark Butler and the Albanese Government as a whole. While almost all view Medicare and the broader public health system as a vital part of Australian life, the broader consensus is that the methodology surrounding it has reached a point where root and stem reform is required.

To quote Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation President Annie Butler: “After 40-years, Medicare just isn’t working as it should and must be changed to meet the growing demands of our fast-ageing population.”

While all agree on the question of reform, there are key questions that remain to be answered:

  • Where do you find the money for reform?
  • Where do you find the staff for reform?
  • How do you avoid this reform stalling or worse, becoming a bureaucratic camel?

As written, none of the recommendations of the taskforce have completely answered these fundamental issues, leaving the floor open for a considered debate and engagement by medical technology companies to showcase their unquestionable ability to improve outcomes for patients, without a rapid expansion in cost.

To reform the system, all sides will need to give up their own pound of flesh to achieve the common goal of improving Australia’s healthcare system.

The pressure is now on the Albanese Government to turn these words into action. Minister Butler has reassuringly said he is not ruling anything out, but there is now a stakeholder, community and media expectation of significant reform.

How the $750 million Strengthening Medicare Fund will be spent will rightly or wrongly be seen as a prioritisation of one reform over another. But as Minister Butler said when addressing the media: “it’s not just about more money – it’s about getting the settings right, it’s about getting the policy right.”

The ability to reform settings and policy is the Government’s own benchmark and provides a once in a generation chance for medical technology companies to influence, models of care by strategic, thoughtful and meaningful engagement with stakeholders from Government to patients and other industry bodies.

One thing is certain however, change is coming for Medicare and there will be continued focus and emphasis placed on making that change one that is positive, long-lasting and cost effective.