An analysis commissioned by Catholic Health Australia has found that the 20 per cent of Australians on the lowest incomes died on average three years earlier than others because of illness caused by unhealthy lifestyles. The most disadvantaged people were in some cases four or five times more likely to suffer chronic illness than the comfortably-off, the report found.
Martin Laverty, the group's chief executive, called on the new Parliament to press for renewed focus on improved early childhood support, education and welfare for disadvantaged people.
''Health reform in the last term of government focused on hospitals, not the drivers that cause people to end up in hospitals,'' Mr Laverty said. ''The then prime minister, Kevin Rudd, missed a major opportunity and left many health professionals disappointed with the health reforms. 'If this Parliament does not act on preventive and social determinants of health, health reforms will not be achieved.''
The analysis by the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling at Canberra University found the health gaps between the poor and well-off were often very large. Up to 65 per cent of people in public housing had long-term health problems compared with only 15 per cent of home owners. More than 60 per cent of men in jobless households reported having a long-term health condition or disability, and more than 40 per cent of women.
Obesity rates were about three times higher among those in public housing than home owners. High-risk drinking among early school leavers was double the rate of those with a tertiary qualification. ''This is not about access to health services,'' Mr Laverty said. ''There is strong evidence that social determinants of health - such as income level, housing status and education level - are the factors more responsible for health inequities.'' The close links between low socio-economic status, illness and harmful lifestyles like smoking and unhealthy diet showed that more preventive health television campaigns would not solve the problem. ''This report shows that policies targeting behavioural change do not work,'' Mr Laverty said.
The health reforms now being implemented by the Gillard government needed to use the proposed new structures such as the local hospital networks and ''Medicare local'' organisations to assess health needs and advocate improvements in early childhood services, schooling and welfare support where necessary, he said. Any suggestion that the health reform was complete was wrong. ''It is far from it,'' Mr Laverty said.
The report, supported by the St Vincent de Paul Society and Catholic Social Services Australia, showed that thinking on health equity had to change, said Father Frank Brennan of the Australian Catholic University and Tony Wheeler, chairman of Catholic Health Australia's stewardship board.
The report may be downloaded from :