Realising the Value of Integrated Care in Australia: Beyond COVID19

Over the past decade there has been a growing realisation of the need to reform health and care systems in Australia to better coordinate care, improve quality and promote value. For example, recent reports such as the 2017 Productivity Commission’s Shifting the Dial and the 2018 CSIRO report Future of Health criticised the existing disease-based, episodic, medically dominated and institutionally- led characteristics of the Australian health system as being unable to respond effectively to the new challenges of age-related chronic illnesses and the very high percentage of Australians living in ill-health. A more person-centred and integrated approach was required, including a shift in funding away from rewarding volume to incentivising value, empowering consumers, addressing health inequality, unlocking the value of digital health, and building integrated care solutions and new workforce skills [1, 2]. Indeed, almost all States and Territories across Australia – to different degrees of coherence and intensity – have developed policies and programmes in this space. Despite progress, the compelling case for integrated care as central to healthcare reform activities appears missing – or at least is subordinate to other priorities and concerns, many of which largely preserve the status quo [3]. Moreover, where it is politically driven the hardest, it has become code for hospital avoidance strategies to reduce costs rather than improving care and outcomes for people in ways that add value.

The impact of COVID 19 has thrown into sharp relief the problems that fragmented health and care systems face in adapting to crises that require an urgent and collaborative response. The disproportionate impact of the pandemic – for example on ethnic minority and indigenous populations; to older people living in residential aged care facilities; to those living in rural and remote communities; to the poorest; and to people with the most complex health and care needs – says much about of our continued inability to coordinate care and support to the our vulnerable communities, and so expose them to disproportionate risk. Existing inequalities in access to care, driven by socio-demographics and communities with a lower resilience to cope, have always been present. But it remains the case – cruelly exposed through COVID 19 – that those people who would most benefit from a coordinated response to their needs are almost always the least likely to receive it.

Australia, for the time being at least, has largely dodged the COVID19 bullet. As a result, the rampant inequalities in care outcomes observed in the Europe and the USA do not bring to the forefront the underlying problems that exist. The impact of COVID19 is therefore less likely to lead to soul searching for new models of integrated health and social care, other than those that seek to embed new operational practices – such as the realisation of the long-term viability of telehealth, or other means to tackle the aftermath of the significant reduction in elective care and treatments to chronic care patients.

The Australian health system is rated better than most, but it remains one of the most fragmented and unequal. The costs and consequences of this, albeit not starkly revealed by COVID-19, are nonetheless increasingly apparent and time for bolder action is necessary. In the light of these current and future issues, the International Foundation for Integrated Care – an international (not for profit) collective of over 20,000 members spanning health and care services, academia, policy, management and implementation – has drawn together international thinking to set out a ‘Call to Action’ [4]. At its heart lies an agenda where integrated care is embedded as an approach to improving population health within and alongside people and communities and driven by new alliances, workforce capabilities and the governance and funding models that support it. As the IFIC Call for Action states:

“We are all interconnected and interdependent. We can no longer work as if we are not. The virus has made it clear that we are vulnerable … [and] risks fragmenting us further [as] the full impact of the pandemic unfolds and inequalities increase. To overcome this risk, we must pool our scarce resources (from health and other sectors) … [to embrace] the ‘one team’ approach to building alliances of stakeholder organisations, people and communities.”

The good news is that the ‘science’ of integrated care has moved forward to an extent that we know what the essential building blocks of a higher value health and care system looks like. History tells us that integrated solutions often emerge in times of crisis. Like the debates on climate change, the knowledge of the challenges that lie ahead represent a critical ‘tipping point’ in our thinking and in how we choose to respond. In Australia, the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on its healthcare system is likely to be more evolutionary rather than revolutionary, but change is unavoidable.

Professor Nick Goodwin,
Director, Central Coast Research Institute for Integrated Care,
University of Newcastle and Central Coast LHD.
Co-Founder, International Foundation for Integrated Care