Some of Australia's leading experts on the social determinants of health gathered in Hobart today to endorse legislation that would see the Tasmanian Government adopt a "health in all policies" approach to try to solve the problem of health inequity.
In 2008, the World Health Organization (WHO) invited governments around the world to develop action plans on the social determinants of health such as education, welfare and housing policies. The South Australian Government is the only Australian government to have formally responded, but legislation in Tasmania will soon be debated in the upper house.
Professor Laurie Brown of the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling says the Gillard Government has made a commitment to seeking to make Australia a more socially inclusive country – one in which all Australians feel valued and can participate in the life of society.
"A genuine effort to ensure that health is a consideration in the formulation of all policies would be a broad stride in the right direction," Professor Brown said. "The magnitude of health inequalities is a good marker of progress towards creating a more just and socially inclusive Australia."
Professor Fran Baum of Flinders University explains that "while Australia is making good progress towards broadening out our measures of how well we are progressing as a country beyond economic measures, we still haven't developed robust ways to measure whether we are reducing health inequities". Australia should follow the lead of countries like the United Kingdom and Norway in this regard, she said.
"We have proposed an Australian 2040 Commission to develop a vision supported by a strategic framework for shaping our collective futures in a way that is inclusive, equitable and supportive of health and well-being," Professor Baum said.
Associate Professor Peter Sainsbury of the University of Sydney School of Public Health said an often overlooked factor in determining someone's future health prospects is the built environment, from city planning to the development of safe, liveable neighbourhoods.
"The built environment is not transformed overnight, but it is progressively changed everywhere by the decisions society makes," he said. "The challenge is to ensure that each change creates a healthier place for people to live."
Catholic Health Australia's involvement in today's forum is a continuation of its effort to have governments adopt a "health in all policies" approach that would see health implications considered in the creation of policies across all portfolios.
Catholic Health Australia last year published the book Determining the Future: A Fair Go & Health for All, which outlines how the recommendations of the WHO Commission on Social Determinants of Health should be adopted in Australia. The book draws on 40 leaders from the areas of health, public policy and academia.
Catholic Health Australia and several of the book's authors have also called on the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs to conduct an Inquiry into the social determinants of health.
A forthcoming report commissioned by Catholic Health Australia will further strengthen the case for the urgent adoption of a "health in all policies" approach from governments as it details the massive financial cost of the failure to act in that area.
"Keeping people healthy and out of hospital requires action on the social determinants of health," Catholic Health Australia CEO Martin Laverty said. "Actions can include better assistance for at-risk mothers during pregnancy, expanded early childhood development in disadvantaged areas and assistance to help at-risk kids complete their schooling.
"It also includes helping people gain and hold employment, providing adequate housing, supporting people in times of personal crisis and making sure mental health services are readily accessible. These areas mostly sit outside health policy thinking," he said.
Today's gathering in Hobart was co-sponsored by Catholic Health Australia and a number of Tasmanian health and social service agencies.