19 May 2017.

The Health Wrap is a regular feature on Croakey from the Sax Institute communications team, which covers some of the interesting and important health news from the previous fortnight, including items covered at Croakey and elsewhere. Enjoy the wrap and tweet us @SaxInstitute with any items you think should make it into the next issue.

By Ellice Mol, Digital Communications Manager, Sax Institute

Budget fallout

Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison delivered a Budget last week that has been branded ‘Labor-lite‘ by Australian Financial Review readers and commentators. The headline health announcements included plans to increase the Medicare levy and fully fund the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).

As expected, Health Minister Greg Hunt announced the Medicare rebate freeze would be lifted, but the Budget revealed that would happen in stages over the next few years. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that experts were warning the staged approach would mean patients would continue to be hit with rising out-of-pocket costs. The warning followed Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy’s recent comments that growing out of pocket costs could put universal health care at risk, as reported at Croakey.

However, AMA Federal President Michael Gannon praised the Government’s plan and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull defended the decision in Question Time in Parliament saying:

“What we are doing is restoring indexation in a measured and consistent way.”

The Grattan Institute’s Stephen Duckett said it was too early to tell whether this approach would be enough to keep bulk-billing rates at their current levels. However, he told the SMH that “each additional day of the freeze means costs and revenues fall further out of alignment”.

Experts reacted to the proposed changes to the Medicare rebate freeze and what it means for the NDIS, generic medicines and aged care, in this article from The Conversation published here at Croakey.

Debate is continuing over the Government plans to increase the Medicare levy to 2.5% for every Australian earning over $21,655, an increase of 0.5% that is expected to raise $8.2 billion over four years and will pay for the NDIS, as reported by The Guardian.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten told the ABC that he would support the levy only if it is applied to the top 20 per cent of wage earners with a taxable income higher than $87,001. However, disability groups urged him not to play politics with the NDIS, with Disability Advocacy Network CEO Mary Mallet calling the increases to the Medicare levy “fair”, the ABC reported.

“It seems to us that people do understand that it’s a fair way to do it, because the Medicare levy is paid in proportion to people’s income,” she said.

There was some good preventive health news in the Budget with a $10 million funding boost for research into chronic disease prevention at The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre, led by the Sax Institute.  The money will come from the Medical Research Future Fund, along with another $10 million for Advanced Health Research and Translation Centres (AHRTCs).

However,  in this Croakey article, Michael Thorn from the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, was critical of the Government’s plans for preventive health, arguing funds are in short supply.

Despite some welcome funding for mental health and suicide prevention, Budget health measures were somewhat overshadowed by the announcement of a proposed trial of random drug testing for welfare recipients. UnitingCare ReGen CEO Laurence Alvis said the policy did not have an evidence base and was likely to engender greater harm to the community, in this article on Croakey. This piece on The Conversation also raised questions about data profiling and discrimination in response to the policy.

For more about the budget announcements and fallout, Croakey reporter Jennifer Doggett reported from inside the Budget lockup, capturing the initial reactions here, while Marie McInerney detailed the responses from a range of health experts here and here.

Indigenous Health MayDay

On May 17, Croakey hosted #IHMayDay17, an annual Twitter festival to promote discussion around Indigenous health. The event is led by James Cook University academic Dr Lynore Geia a Bwgcolman woman from Palm Island, who wrote this piece for The Guardian to highlight the significance of day. She wrote:

Here followers will read of Indigenous strength, resilience and sophistication. It is a showcase of the ongoing survival of our culture and knowledge systems in contemporary Australia.

The program featured a range of prominent Indigenous voices including Matthew CookeChair of NACCHO, Romlie MokakCEO of  The Lowitja Institute and Linda BurneyShadow Minister for Human Services, among others.

In the lead up to the event, Indigenous woman Tess Ryan wrote this piece for Croakey profiling the power of self-representation and Richard Weston, CEO of the Healing Foundation, shared his video interview with his mother, Thelma Weston, a former nurse and Aboriginal health worker, who calls for better funding for community controlled health services, and greater recognition and support for Aboriginal Health Workers. Weston says his mother, who now manages the needle syringe program at the Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health Service, has taught him courage, strength, persistence and determination.

#IHMayDay17 also coincided with #FamilyMatters, a campaign to highlight the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the child protection system. Gerry Morre, CEO of SNAICC, took charge of the @wepublichealth Twitter account for the May 14-19 campaign to call for funding for child protection and early intervention support services. In this Croakey post, which also featured images of the #IndigenousMums Twitter campaign that trended nationally on Mothers’ Day, he examined the importance of maintaining connection to culture, overcoming disadvantage, ideas on where to invest funds and discussed a mechanism for change.

And in other news, this story in The Guardian detailed how a new report had shown that youth programs in the Northern Territory were proving value for money, delivering a social return of more than $4.50 to every dollar of investment. The programs had reduced rates of crime and drug abuse among young people as well as providing benefits such as improved health outcomes and self-esteem, greater engagement with education and training, and increased school attendance and literacy.

Assisted dying on the agenda

New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian remains tight-lipped about her position on an upcoming conscience vote on new legislation that would allow terminally ill New South Wales residents to end their lives with medical assistance, the SMH reported.

New South Wales Opposition Leader Luke Foley revealed his position, saying he would vote against legislation to allow voluntary assisted dying, after the a draft of a new bill was unveiled by a cross parliamentary working group on the issue, as reported in The Guardian,

Meanwhile, an interim report released by the Victorian Health Minister Jill Hennessy said that medical experts would need more training if voluntary euthanasia legislation was passed in that state. An active debate on how long a person would be required to have lived in Victoria before they were allowed to access services under the proposed laws is underway, SBS reported.

Both the New South Wales and Victorian bills are expected to come before their respective Parliaments later this year.

Worldwide cyber attack shakes NHS

Last week WannaCry malicious ransomware software targeted the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), among a host of other organisations worldwide.

According to British Defence Secretary Micheal Fallon, the NHS was repeatedly warned of cyber attacks and given ‘a large chunk’ of money to improve its security, the BBC reported, as 48 of the England’s 248 hospital trusts reported problems at hospitals, GP surgeries and pharmacies across England. A neurology registrar from London, Dr Krishna Chinthapalli, who only a week earlier had warned in the BMJ that hospitals would “almost certainly be shut down by ransomware this year”, told the BBC:

“People developing ransomware know a hospital is a good target because the information is about patients and is time-sensitive – hospitals need to get their data back quicker.”

The Guardian explained how the cyber attack happened, while the BBC reported that the ransomware, which was encrypting users’ files and demanding ransom money for their release, had spread across 150 countries. It reported those affected included Germany’s rail network Deutsche Bahn, Spanish telecommunications operator Telefonica as well as the White House, which said it had paid almost $US70,000 to have locked data released.

A 22 year-old British computer expert Marcus Hutchins was credited with stopping the attack, after stumbling across the solution, ABC reported.

The WannaCry ransomware has since been linked to North Korea, according to a report in The Guardian which said top security firms Kapersky and Symantec had discovered similarities to code used in a 2015 backdoor created by the government-linked North Korean hackers.

Research watch

The Federal Government’s national roadmap for research infrastructure was released this week, outlining priorities for “building Australian research excellence into the future’. The plan focuses on nine areas including digital data and e‑research platforms, biosecurity, complex biology and therapeutic development and more. Further details about the roadmap can be found here.

Making headlines on the medical research front were findings from a study by University of Sydney researchers that provide further evidence of the link between respiratory infections and heart attacks. The study showed that people who had a respiratory infection faced a 17-fold increased risk of heart attack in the following seven days, the ABC reported.

In this article on The Conversation, Professor Emily Banks, Scientific Director of the Sax Institute’s 45 and Up Study, outlined why one of the most powerful weapons that doctors, public health departments and governments could use in their battle to decide which disease to help prevent next was the long-term population study or “longitudinal cohort study”, because it can build up a comprehensive picture of health at a population level over time.

According to another article on The Conversation, there is growing evidence to suggest that bad moods have psychological benefits such as better memory, more accurate judgement, motivation, better communication and increased fairness. And this interesting read on The Conversation discusses the mounting evidence that the use of performance enhancing drugs is growing and becoming normalised as part of people’s fitness and beauty regimes around the world despite potential health risks.

Finally, another eye-catching study showed the more red meat you eat the greater the risk of dying from nine diseases: cancer, heart disease, respiratory disease, stroke, diabetes, infections, Alzheimer’s disease, kidney disease and liver disease, as reported in the New York Times.