The Health Wrap: Cabinet reshuffles, research kerfuffles and obesity around the world
Sep 20, 2013
The dust from the election cleared to reveal the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, had left a gaping hole in his cabinet where the science minister should be – for the first time since the portfolio was established in 1931. But as Sydney Morning Herald science reporter Nicky Phillips points out, a science policy released by Mr Abbott and former member for Indi, Sophie Mirabella, on June 17 while they were in Opposition made it seem unlikely that Science would be dropped as a portfolio.
Titled ‘Fostering Australian Scientific Research,’ the policy outline described cutting red tape, protecting medical research funding and providing policy certainty as “essential parts of the Coalition’s commitment to foster science and research in Australia”. They also pledged $35 million to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation’s Clinical Trial Network for type 1 diabetes research. But apparently, such sweeping actions do not require a science minister, leading to the hashtag #NoScienceMinister trending on Twitter for a short while.
ABC political correspondent, Emma Griffiths, reported that even Liberal MP and member for the West Australian seat of Tangney, Dennis Jensen, was confused about where science may fit in the newly announced cabinet. He has previously expressed interest in taking on the portfolio, the report says. The omission has worried science groups, with the head of Science and Technology Australia, Catriona Jackson, telling Fairfax “Science and technology are central to virtually everything government does, from industry to universities to agriculture to health to creating the kind of jobs that will ensure a prosperous future’’.
In a co-authored piece for The Conversation, Deputy Director for the Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science, Rod Lamberts, says science needs a powerful advocate within cabinet. Maybe the Minister for Industry Ian Macfarlane, who now has the CSIRO now under his portfolio, could be that person Lamberts writes. Or “Maybe he won’t. Maybe he feels his job is to advocate for science in Cabinet, maybe he doesn’t. If he doesn’t feel that responsibility, if this is a lowering of priorities, things may get bumpy”. Either way, he writes, it may not spell the science doom and gloom many are predicting.
Meanwhile, health minister Peter Dutton now has Sport added to his portfolio. As Pulse+IT points out:“A new Assistant Minister for Health, Nationals Senator Fiona Nash, will join the outer ministry, along with NSW Senator Marise Payne, who has been named Minister for Human Services in charge of delivering social and health-related services such as Medicare”. Jim Gillepsie writes for Croakey that the Coalition revealed little of its health agenda during the election campaign and reflects on lessons learned from Abbott’s former days as health minister, from October 2003 to the 2007 election.
“Health has always been a difficult area for the Coalition parties,” Professor Gillespie, who is Deputy Director of the Menzies Centre for Health Policy, writes. “Their hostility towards Medicare played a major part in electoral failures from 1984 to 1993. Abbott’s period as health minister showed him as a pragmatist, primarily (and successfully) focusing on removing health from the front pages.” Perhaps we need a Minister for the Rehabilitation of Politics, suggests the National Rural Health Alliance’s Gordon Gregory on Croakey, in order to get health back on the front pages.
This piece from Emily Millane for The Drum describes the Prime Minister’s decision to lump aged care and ageing into the Social Services portfolio as potentially troublesome for the future of older Australians. “What’s in a (ministerial portfolio) name?” she writes. “A lot, when you can’t even tell if a particular area of policy is under the remit of that portfolio. And so it is with the portfolio of Social Services, which is to take in aged care, seniors and ageing among other things.”
But don’t feel despaired by all the reshuffling. Former health minister and staunch anti-tobacco, plain-packaging advocate, Nicola Roxon, has offered some practical advice for public health advocates hoping to work with the new ministry in her address to the Public Health Association of Australia conference, Croakey reports. At the bottom of the article public health leaders comment on the implications of the demise of individual portfolios in mental health, Indigenous health, disability and aged care. As the minister who managed to get the mammoth task of plain-packaging over the line, Roxon knows a thing or two about navigating tricky stakeholder relationships. You can see Croakey’s coverage of the Public Health Association of Australia conference here.
Sugar and obesity from around the world
The Australian Medical Association is unhappy about the Australian Medical Publishing Company (AMPCo) – a fully owned subsidiary of the AMA – enabling Coca-Cola’s most recent health-washing campaign aimed at doctors, writes Croakey coordinator Melissa Sweet. Many doctors raised concerns about being targeted by the campaign, Sweet writes, and when asked about its stance the AMA said it believed the Coca Cola mail-out should have been “subject to more stringent scrutiny”.
But GPs are short-sighted in turning down the chance to work with Coca Cola to prevent obesity, writes Ben Pobjie in a tongue-and-cheek piece for The Drum. After all, he writes, it’s not called ‘Diet Coke’ for nothing. He puts it down to “haughty doctor pride” that the “notoriously whiney medical profession” has turned down the opportunity to promote diet drink products.
Still on sugar, while most US teenagers are still falling short of Federal dietary guidelines, Anahad O’Connor writes for the New York Times that public health messages aimed at children may be getting through. Teenagers appear to be consuming less sugar and exercising more. It is no small feat given aggressive food industry marketing of junk food towards children and their parents. Especially since discounts on junk food for buying in bulk don’t help the health of families struggling in tough economic times, writes Frank Bruni.
But while some teenagers are becoming healthier, this important piece by Hope Reeves, also in the New York Times, examines the unfortunately overlooked issue of obese children suffering from eating disorders going unnoticed and untreated. It’s a reminder that all children, no matter their size, are prone to disorders and need to be treated with compassion and closely monitored when embarking on a health regime. “While 6 per cent of all young people suffer from eating disorders, an unpublished study cited in the report found that nearly half of adolescents who presented for eating disorder treatment had a history of obesity, and that it took significantly longer for those patients to be identified compared with patients who did not have such a weight history,” Reeves reports. The methods teenagers use in order to slim down can sometimes have tragic consequences as this piece in The Telegraph reveals.
In India, there has been an alarming rise in paediatric obesity, The Times of India reports. The piece, written by two doctors, tells the story of a 16-month-old weighing 16 kg. “Leading endocrinologists say that at least one out of every 10 kids in the city is obese,” they write. “The rate is higher – five out of every 10 children – among elite, high income groups.”
Meanwhile in Amsterdam, a senior health official has described sugar as a dangerous drug, the Huffington Post reports. Paul Van Der Velpen, the head of the Public Health Service, is calling for a sugar tax and for labels to be placed on sugary foods warning that it is addictive. It may not be a bad move since the influx of sugary, fat-laden Western food in China is partly blamed for that country now tackling the world’s biggest diabetes epidemic, The New York Times reports. And in Saudi Arabia, a two-and-a-half year old boy has become the youngest patient to undergo bariatric surgery.
Finally, this fascinating series of images reveals the weekly grocery shopping of families around the world, courtesy of photographer Peter Menzel of Wall to Watch. Australia is featured; what are your thoughts on how the picture reflects our diets? [Source: Peter Menzel Photography]. Share your thoughts on this and other health news from the past fortnight in the Comments section below.
Ageing, dying and palliative care
Croakey delivered extensive coverage of the 12th annual Palliative Care Conference in Canberra – you can find the full list of articles here. During the conference Professor Irene Higginson, Director of the London-based Cicely Saunders Institute, told Croakey that end-of-life care often does not prolong peoples’ lives, and can be traumatic and expensive. Health economists need to become more involved in palliative care, she says, while there is also a need for more education because Australian doctors receive less palliative care training than those in the UK.
Meanwhile Fairfax state political reporter, Amy Remeikis, writes that the Queensland government is preparing for what to do as carers in the state age and die. “It’s one of the vexing issues for disability carers,” she writes. “What happens when I’m gone?” Funding has been allocated toward a trial there to find suitable accommodation options for people. And United Voice, the union representing aged and childcare workers, is pushing the Federal government to pass on at least $1 billion in improved pay and conditions to union members, The Australian reports.
If you’re not familiar with Adele Horin’s Coming of Age blog yet, it is an insightful exploration of how a generation of Australians are coming to terms with getting older. Her website explores both the ups and downs of ageing, with topics including dying-at-home, over-medication, love and friendship. In her most recent post, she describes how the sexual revolution has turned into a “damp squib” for some baby boomers. On websites about wellbeing and ageing “you’ll find narratives of lost desire, painful sex, refusenik partners, and sex lives cut short by prostate and other cancers, by ill health, and chronic pain,” Horin writes. She interviews sex therapist, Elaine George, about how some of these issues can be faced.
While coming to terms with ageing is important there are scientists who are working hard to slow or reverse the process altogether, the BBC reports. A small pilot study has suggests comprehensive lifestyle changes – reducing stress, improving diet and moderate exercise – may increase the length of telomeres, the ends of chromosomes that control cell ageing, medical correspondent Fergus Walsh reports.
Australian research round-up
Australian inventor of the Cochlear implant, Graeme Clark, has been awarded a prestigious Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research award. He shares the honour with Ingeborg Hochmair of the company MED-EL in Austria and Blake Wilson of Duke University in North Carolina, who also developed the implant. The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation reported that as of 2010, approximately 219,000 people across the globe had received cochlear implants, with about 60 per cent of them going to children.
Queensland University researchers say their research into e-cigarettes was misrepresented in a front page article from the Sun Herald on September 15. The researchers released a statement that rejected the journalist’s claim that their clinical trial of e-cigarettes for smoking cessation had been funded by the former Labor government as part of a plan to ban traditional cigarettes. “The research study is in fact funded by a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) project grant,” the statement says. “These prestigious competitive grants are awarded on the basis of a peer-review process by a panel of independent non-government experts. The government had no input into the design of the trial and the decision to fund the study was based on the independent NHMRC panel’s scores.”
Meanwhile research published in the Medical Journal of Australia found an overall increase in ambulance call-outs to amphetamine related emergencies in Melbourne. This rise was particularly pronounced for crystal meth or ‘ice’,reports Reissa Su for International Business Times. The article quotes Australian Drug Foundation’s national policy manager, Geoff Munro, as saying the popular television series Breaking Bad may have had a small impact on crystal meth’s rising popularity. Triple J’s Hack program explored the issue, interviewing a former addict and drug workers who are seeing the problem unfold. Listen here.
Indigenous representation in Parliament
The first Aboriginal woman to win a seat in Australia’s parliament, senator for the Northern Territory Nova Peris, has been congratulated by the chair of the peak body of Aboriginal health NACCHO, Justin Mohamed. The former Olympian won gold in field hockey at the 1996 Atlanta Games before switching to athletics to win gold in the 200m and 4x100m relay at the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur in 1998, SBS news reports. “Her pre-selection ruffled feathers though, with one conservative Aboriginal politician saying Labor had been shamed into pre-selecting an Indigenous candidate and compared the politically inexperienced Peris to a ‘maid’ inside Labor’s house,” the SBS report says. “Others were angered that her pre-selection bumped out Labor’s long-serving Northern Territory Senator Trish Crossin.” It is little wonder that in her victory speech, Peris said federal politics had the same cruelness of elite sport.
AAP News reports on the confusion that still surrounds the future department /minister responsible for Aboriginal health under the Abbott government. Northern Territory Labor MP Warren Snowdon, who was the first Indigenous health minister from 2009 told AAP that he was concerned that Aboriginal health was not being prioritised. “Prime Minister Tony Abbott has flagged he will move Indigenous affairs under the umbrella of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet,” the report says. “But in administrative arrangements released on Wednesday there is no specific reference to Indigenous health in either the Department of Prime Minister or Cabinet, the department of health or ministerial responsibilities. Asked if the absence of a specific minister could negatively impact efforts to achieve the close the gap targets, Mr Snowdon told AAP: “I think it is a problem.”
On a more positive note, Jennifer Doggett reports for Croakey that one of the highlights of the Palliative Care conference was learning about the work of Maringka Burton and Ilawanti Ken, who are Ngangkari – traditional Aboriginal healers. “In these communities, there is a culturally based view of causation and recovery from physical and mental illness, which attributes many illness and emotional states to harmful elements in the spiritual world,” she writes. “Ngangkari are highly valued for their unique ability to protect and heal individuals and communities from this harm.”
And finally, Croakey coordinator Melissa Sweet explores what Croakey readers can do to help prevent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides. She interviews Professor Pat Dudgeon and Dr Tom Calma, co-chairs of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Advisory Group, who say readers can get involved by tackling racism, by becoming culturally competent, and by developing respectful working partnerships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and peoples.
Each month the Health Wrap will feature a health blogger who shares their thoughts on public health issues. KevinMd.com is a blog established by US physician Kevin Pho, and also features posts from doctors, surgeons, nurses, medical students and policy experts. Highlights this fortnight include a post from a doctor of internal medicine, James Marroquin, on delivering bad news to a patient. He reflects on his own experience receiving a negative diagnosis for his son, and how it has made him more sympathetic to the patient experience when he has to hard news to deliver. Behavioural scientist Peter Ubel writes about what happens when a doctor resorts to using jargon. And Doctor Pamela Wible writes a moving piece about what happens to miscarriages.
Best health tweets from the Twittersphere
If you have read an article that you think Croakey health wrap readers might be interested in, Tweet them to @MelissaLDavey or @medicalmedia. Twitter shout-outs this week go to @NickySMH, @FrancesGilham, @seanparnell,@NACHHOAustralia, @AustralianDoctor and @triplejhack.
Other Croakey reading you may have missed this fortnight:
“Why aren’t you all caring for country?” Professor Kerry Arabena
Shifting Gears: Promoting Active Living and Healthy Diets in Queensland Truck Drivers
Public health awards put focus on women’s health, the dangers of fossil fuels and inequities
The ‘interconnected but parallel universes’ of public policy
Marketing of milks for infants and young children: Effective regulation is urgent
Public health sector urged to engage globally
Revealing the secrets of successful public health advocacy
Urgent need to embed public health in the ‘community psyche’, says PHAA president
A great big Twitter wrap-up of news from recent national palliative care conference
Canadian primary care study useful for new Health Minister
What will it take to get a “fair go” for health under a Coalition Government? Preview of the PHAA conference
You can find previous editions of the Health Wrap here.
Melissa Davey is the Sax Institute’s Communications Manager. She was previously a health and medical reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun Herald. She is completing her Masters of Public Health at the University of Sydney and has a strong interest in public health messaging, body image and mental health. The Sax Institute is a not-for-profit organisation that drives the use of research evidence in health policy and planning. Twitter:@MelissaLDavey