It’s with pleasure I introduce this week’s Health Wrap from my colleague Megan Howe, who has joined the Sax Institute as Publications Manager.

Megan knows more than a thing or two about health reporting – she has worked in the media for 25 years, most recently as co-editor at the GP publication Australian Doctor and has also covered health for major metropolitan newspapers. Enjoy this week’s Health Wrap.

By Megan Howe

The NSW election:  Forgotten issues

A regional Medicare Local has slammed both major NSW political parties for promising to build more hospitals in the lead up to the election while remaining silent on preventive health, The Newcastle Herald reported.

The Hunter Medicare Local chairman said it was disappointing the only solution to rising hospital admissions being discussed by politicians was building more hospitals, rather than focusing on primary care. Similar concerns were also raised by Croakey contributors, while Dr Tim Senior highlighted the health threats of coal mining.

The issues of poverty and disadvantage, that affect a large proportion of the NSW electorate, have not received the attention they deserve in the election lead-up, Tracy Howe, CEO of the Council of Social Service NSW (NCOSS), argued on Croakey.

Indigenous issues have also been largely ignored in the election campaign, Indigenouos leaders warned in a report in The Guardian. The chairman of the Aboriginal Medical Service in Redfern, Sol Bellear said neglected health issues in the community included abuse of the drug crystal methamphetamine (ice), which was as much an issue in Indigenous communities as it was in the wider public, and a big increase in juvenile diabetes among Aboriginal children.

Meanwhile, on Croakey, Andrew Wilson, Director of the Menzies Centre for Health Policy at the University of Sydney and Director of The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre, looked at health issues facing NSW in the lead up to the state election – without the spin.  “Given we are repeatedly told we can’t have everything in health care, the broader community is  entitled to an informed debate about things that will make substantive differences to their community – and not just promises of local infrastructure and resources that should be decided on measured need and equity”, he argued.

And former MP Rob Oakeshott provided some wider political context to election health considerations.

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A partial win for Indigenous funding

Community and Indigenous legal centres were given an 11th hour reprieve, with the announcement that the Federal Government had backed down on its planned cuts, the ABC reported. It quoted Attorney-General George Brandis saying the Government was taking a more “nuanced approach” to funding and $25.5 million over two years would be reinstated to the sector.

“I’m mindful of the fact that this legal assistance sector is resource constrained and in particular it deals with needy and vulnerable people,” Senator Brandis was quoted as saying.

Crikey had previously reported  that 26 legal, health and not for profit Indigenous bodies had signed an open letter to Prime Minister Tony Abbott, urging him to take “critical leadership” and reverse funding cuts to Aboriginal legal services.

And Health Minister Susan Ley joined state and territory attourneys general in making representations to Mr Brandis about the implications of of the legal funding cuts.

Meanwhile, The Guardian reported that the Federal Government had released the names of organisations – including government departments – awarded $860 million in grants through the controversial new Indigenous Advancement Strategy which consolidates more than 150 Indigenous affairs programs and policies into five broad areas.

The list of funding recipients published on the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet website included several state government departments, including various departments of education, as well as health and ageing, justice and attorney general, and sport and recreation, it reported.  The Greens described the list as “opaque” however, the Australian  said (paywalled) the details of grant amounts had not yet been released, with the Federal Government still locked in negotiations with organisations.

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Mental health groups on the funding brink

Seventy mental health groups, including Mental Health Australia, Headspace, and the Black Dog Institute, have written an open letter to Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Health Minister Sussan Ley over funding concerns, the ABC and Crikey reported. The funding for hundreds of contracts had not been guaranteed after June 30, meaning thousands of Australians seeking help for mental health problems faced uncertainty, according to the report.

Meanwhile, psychiatrist Alen Rosen from the School of Public Health at Wollongong University wrote on Croakey that the next NSW Government must make health services much more accountable for their use of mental health funding, and deliver major new investment in community mental health services.

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Welfare card controversy

The Federal Government is set to trial a “healthy welfare card” in disadvantaged communities, Social Services Minister Scott Morrison revealed. But as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, he said there were no plans for the widespread use of a cashless welfare card to stop spending on drugs, alcohol and gambling, as recommended in a controversial review of Indigenous employment by WA mining magnate Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest.

The Government’s plan came under fire from Mr Forrest, who raised concerns any cash payments may be used on illicit substances, the ABC reported. A central feature of his proposed card was stop people accessing cash payments.

Mr Forrest  argued in a piece in the Daily Telegraph that a cashless welfare card would better protect the vulnerable by allowing recipients to buy almost anything— except restricted items of alcohol, gambling and cash-out.

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“Mind-eating’ ice destroying society

The addictive drug ice – crystal methamphetamine – is tearing Australian families, communities – and footy teams apart, media outlets have reported this week.

A report on the scale of the country’s ice epidemic released by the Australian Crime Commission sparked a headline in the The Daily Telegraph  warning that the drug was “destroying Australian society”.  And it prompted Federal Justice Minister, Michael Keenan, to warn that “our nation’s addiction to this mind-eating, personality-distorting, life-ending drug” is undermining the social fabric of communities”, as reported by the Sydney Morning Herald The Guardian reported that ice use was the biggest drug problem facing Australian police.

In a follow up story, the SMH reported that addiction specialists were struggling to keep up with the demand from people seeking help for ice usage, which had outstripped heroin.

And The Daily Telegraph revealed that the drug was behind the CFMEU’s backflip on mandatory drug testing on construction sites.

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Medicare debate not dead yet

Prime Minister Tony Abbott may have declared the GP co-payment “dead, buried and cremated” a couple of weeks ago, but attention has turned to another part of Government’s Medicare reform plan – the freeze on Medicare rebates for GPs.

The Canberra Times reported on a study in the Medical Journal of Australia  that found the freeze would cost Australians $10 for each GP visit, while regional papers including the Gympie Times said the impact of the rebate freeze would hit regional areas hardest.

Meanwhile, Terry Barnes, the health policy advisor who kick-started the debate on the GP co-payment last year, turned his attention to specialists saying those who charge exorbitant fees should be “named and shamed” in a bid to rein in excessive charging, The Sydney Morning Herald reported.

An editorial by David Gadiel of the Centre for Independent Studies published in The Australian under the headline  Doctor, charge what you dare (paywalled) argued the case for leaving the responsibility of patient cost sharing to the marketplace.

Writing in The Saturday Paper, Ray Moynihan explored another means of cutting unnecessary health spending and improving health outcomes – the Choose Wisely campaign.  Australia’s introduction of the global campaign would see doctors volunteer a list of diagnostic tests, treatments, pills and procedures that are being overused and overprescribed, and might be safer to avoid, he wrote.

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Up in smoke

Doctors groups have called for tougher regulations on e-cigarettes as they become increasingly popular in bars and clubs, the Herald Sun reported.  AMA and Quit Victoria called for bans on e-cigarettes to be widened to outlaw non-nicotine vaping and to close a loophole that allows the importation of prohibited devices with a prescription.

In California, an advertising campaign went to air warning about the danger of e-cigarettes, Time magazine reported.

New research on the dangers of tobacco smoking was also making news. The ABC reported on a Tasmanian study that showed passive smoking doubled children’s chance of stroke-causing plaque build-ups, and The Sydney Morning Herald published a story about UK research that used 4D ultrasound to show the effect of the mother smoking on unborn babies.

Meanwhile Tasmania’s Health Minister Michael Ferguson described as unworkable an Upper House MP’s bid to outlaw cigarette sales to anyone born in, or after, the year 2000, even though he said he supported the goal.

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For medicinal purposes

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that parents of children with epilepsy are pinning their hopes on an upcoming trial of medicinal cannabis to treat the condition. The trial will include up to 200 children from as young as six months of age.

The ACT could become the medical marijuana capital of Australia under a proposal by Greens MLA Shane Rattenbury to allow the Territory to develop a monpolised cannabis industry akin to Tasmania’s $120 million poppy industry, according to a report by news.com.au.

A drug that is legal – alcohol – was the focus of piece by experts from the McCusker Centre for Action on Alcohol and Youth at Perth’s Curtin University on Croakey.  They argued against a proposal by the commercial television industry body Free TV Australia to change its Code of Practice in a way that would increase young people’s exposure to alcohol advertising.

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Science or journalism fail?

The media’s reportage of controversial science and health issues was pushed into the spotlight when controversy erupted over an article by New York Times columnist Nick Bilton under the original headline of “Could Wearable Computers Be as Harmful as Cigarettes?” In the article, Bilton said he believed mobile technologies like Apple’s upcoming watch could perhaps cause cancer.

The notion was quickly and universally panned as inaccurate by other media, including Slate, prompting the NY Times public editor to write an addendum to the original article admitting the initial headline went too far. The addendum also acknowledged that one of the sources quoted in the article had been widely criticized by experts for his claims about disease risks and treatments and perhaps should not have been cited as a source.

In the wake of the controversy, a piece in The Conversation raised the question whether the debacle was a fail for journalism, or a fail for science. David Glance, Director of the UWA Centre for Software Practice at University of Western Australia wrote that what the story perhaps pointed to was difficulty in trying to distil scientific research into a form that was understandable and can be communicated to the public.

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Star surgery

When Angelina Jolie revealed she had undergone preventive double mastectomy, there was a big jump in people inquiring about their genetic health in Australia and worldwide.  Jolie this week penned a piece in The NY Times revealing that she also recently had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed over fears of cancer. The revelation was reported worldwide, including by the ABC.

In a subsequent piece on the ABC Drum, journalist Elise Worthington, who had previously spoken publicly about her preventive mastectomy, wrote that she hoped women would pay as much attention to Jolie’s ovarian surgery as they had to her breast surgery.

You can read previous Health Wraps here.

Other Croakey reading you may have missed this fortnight:

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