Above: ‘Picture the Future’ Researcher, Jodie Long.
By Stephen Easton
Australia’s health system needs to undergo a radical shift, from caring for the sick to keeping people well, in order to deal with a population that is not only ageing but also growing fatter by the day, according to the findings of a report released today.
Picture the Future: Healthcare is the fourth in a series of studies commissioned by technology company Siemens, and found that if current trends are not reversed, 75 per cent of Australians could be overweight or obese by 2030.
The senior researcher behind the report, Jodi Long, said that demographic change leading to an older population would increase the prevalence of chronic diseases like diabetes, mental illnesses, heart disease, joint disorders, cardiovascular disease and cancer, and that the obesity epidemic would only add to the problem.
“This is the first time that we’ve looked at obesity in combination with the ageing population,” Ms Long said. “What we’ve found is that we’re going to have an avalanche of chronic disease that’s going to swamp our health system – a health system that’s already under stress.
“We identified the top five chronic diseases that will have the biggest impact on Australia. Diabetes is number one – today we already have two million Australians who are ‘pre-diabetic’.”
Ms Long said that her findings, which had been validated by researchers from CSIRO including Professor Richard Head, pointed to a need to shift from a ‘sick care’ to a ‘well care’ model.
“Prevention is critical to our ability to deal with chronic disease. We need to invest significantly more in the area of prevention and research to bring down obesity levels and reduce the incidence of chronic disease,” Professor Head said.
Ms Long said that obesity already costs Australia over $58 billion every year, and that when combined with an ageing population, the ‘avalanche of chronic disease’ could overwhelm health services.
She said new technology could be available in coming decades to help solve the problem, in part by keeping older people at home instead of in hospital beds, but also by supporting a preventative model of healthcare.
“98 per cent [of healthcare funding] is spent on treatment and care, and only two per cent on prevention and promoting risk reduction and a healthy lifestyle, as well as technology to help with monitoring your own health. We need to tip the scales the others in the other way.
“We do see that the elderly population need to move out of costly hospital beds and be cared for in their homes, and if you look at Alzheimer’s, the number [with the disease] will double by 2030. What we can see happening by 2020 is that ‘lab on a chip’ technology will be available.
The ‘lab on a chip’ would be the size of a credit card and from analysing a drop of blood, be able to detect early warning signs of conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, certain cancers and cardio vascular disease.
“Today over 55,000 hospital beds are being blocked every year by elderly patients for no medical reason. They’re simply there because they haven’t got an aged care facility to go to.
“If we can have ‘lab on a chip’ technology, as well as sensors in the home to detect things like movement, we can detect that they haven’t moved for a while. This ‘sensor revolution’ will allow us to have aged-friendly homes.”
Other things Siemens is working on include products to support an e-health system, and lifelike digital models of a person’s organs called ‘virtual human’ technology.
“It’s a fully functioning computer model of your internal organs. We have all the data for this today – blood tests, imaging and other medical information – all that information just needs to be combined to make the model.
“Then we can say ‘this person smokes 20 cigarettes a day’, and we can see what their heart will look like in two or three years time, and if they can see their heart stop…that’s a very powerful tool to change their behaviour.
“It’s a much more personalised way of doing medicine.”