Niki Ellis | Where’s the medical leadership?
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Where’s the medical leadership?

27 Mar 2014, Posted by Professor Niki Ellis in RACP

There are signs that the Federal Government is gearing up for health policy changes.  Early in March Peter Dutton, the Minister for Health, when addressing a conference of general practitioners, made it clear that health workforce planning was on the agenda.  Later he floated the idea of a co-payment for GP visits to deliver a price signal to consumers to deter excessive consumption associated with the growing practice of bulk billing.  According to the 7.30 Report on 18 March bulk billing has increased from 50% to 83% of GP visits.  The show featured Terry Barnes a former advisor to the current Prime Minister when he was Health Minister.  According to Barnes, not only is there a need to make Australia’s health care system more efficient, but also we need to lower the expectations of Australians.  Currently they want a Rolls Royce, he said, but we can only afford a Kingswood.

Barnes touched on medical waste.  It has been estimated that between one-third to one-half of all US health care spending is on services that lack evidence of producing better health outcomes than less expensive alternatives (Health Policy Briefs, Dec 13, 2012).  Causes are: not using best practice, lack of co-ordination of care, eg duplication of investigations, overtreatment, overly complex administration, inappropriately high prices and fraud.   On the 7.30 Report, Paul Gross, a leading Australian health strategist responded to Barnes’ comments by saying that a good way to address high health costs would be tackle adverse health events.  According to Goss one in ten admissions to hospitals are due to complications arising from previous treatments.

It is good to see the new government stimulating discussion on future proofing Australia’s health care system.  Hopefully it will lead to action.  For my money there has been very slow progress since the Productivity Commission released its 2005 report on Australia’s Health Workforce and the National Health and Hospital Reform Commission report was finalised.

But where is the medical leadership?  Time and time again in health we have seen that without the contribution of everyday clinical leaders – not the Ministers and Directors General of Health, but the Heads of Urology, or Gastroenterology, Paediatrics or Cardiology, in the Sir Somebody Important Hospitals dotted around the country – we are not going to see change.

Yet it is possible to engage these busy, committed professionals in innovation of health services.  Clinical-led programs to reduce medical waste in the USA and UK have been effective.

Medical colleges could potentially contribute more to health workforce planning and innovation in health services.  And the RACP, with its broad range of practice covering a variety of settings:  hospitals, workplace and other community settings, in particular.

Recently I have had reason to talk to trainees in the RACP.  These young post-graduates want different things to the previous generations of specialist doctors.  For a start, quite sensibly, they want a better work-life balance: both men and women.  Forget working 80 hours or more a week. They are interested in more varied careers, they want more options other than a railway track to super-specialisation.  In short they are open to re-thinking their roles.  We should run with this and start planning for more flexible roles and training programs by allowing trainees to select modules from a variety of streams.  Most of all we should teach tomorrow’s medical and other health leaders how to innovate health services.

Health innovation without clinical leadership may happen, but it will be the poorer for it.