Ian Webster. Cutting waste and costs in health

Feb 3, 2014

Waste in health care conjures up several pictures.

One picture is of community nurses, psychologists and Aboriginal health workers in the community centre I visit anchored to their computer screens, endlessly it seems, trying to fulfil the demands of data entry. They are obviously frustrated by the lack of relevance this has for solving the problems of their patients. It takes time away and it is disempowering. About one third of each day is lost in this way.

While not so apparent, there is a certain cynicism amongst the local hospital’s specialists about ‘gaming’ to preserve the local hospital’s funding and the administrative demands made on their time. The Garling Special Commission of Inquiry into Acute Care Services in NSW Public Hospitals in 2008 highlighted how non-clinical workload takes time away from clinicians who should be able to dedicate this time to clinical tasks. And the Greater Metropolitan Clinical Taskforce in 2004 reported on the conflicts between the information needed for clinical decisions and the data used by the administrators and funders. John Menadue, in his speeches on health care reform, has described the mismatch between vertical bureaucratic accountability and reporting and the horizontal and shared communication and working relationships of health professionals.

There is much disillusionment in the current health care system where there should be enthusiasm and pride. Not only is time wasted in an atmosphere of excessive checking, rechecking and codification – to protect the Minister and the system – but good people and good-will are being wasted. Despite the demands and impediments on their time and commitment there are still front-line heroes who “go well beyond the call of duty” to pick up the pieces left undone by others. These people are the pivots around which the services revolve and they should be celebrated and encouraged.

To prevent waste, data collection and information technology must be ‘practice-worthy’; they must help solve clinical problems and assess the progress of patients if they are to contribute to effective and efficient patient care.

The second picture is of the waste of misdirected efforts.

In the National Report Card on Mental Health and Suicide Prevention of 2012 the National Mental Health Commission, on behalf of the mental health community, expressed disquiet about the Activity Based Funding (ABF) being developed for the National Hospital Pricing Authority. The Commission said, “The new ABF system should be designed to meet the needs of people with mental health difficulties regardless of whether services are provided in hospitals, in the community or elsewhere. Alternatives to hospitals must be a priority.” The fear is that ABF will inevitably suck funding for mental health back to hospital activities rather than support and care in the community. If any part of ‘health’ demands a community-based approach, mental health does.

The Commission’s view is that people should be supported to have contributing lives where they live and work and not be dependent on hospital-based services, necessary as this may be at critical times. Exactly the same can be said in the prevention and management of physical health generally – especially in the management of chronic disease and the intractable complexities of the increasingly prevalent multiple conditions. For people with these conditions hospital admissions are but punctuated interludes along pathways lived out in the community.

Waste will mount inexorably so long as we neglect to invest in primary health care and community health.

Professor Ian Webster is Emeritus Professor of Community Health at the University of New South Wales.


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