Health of the nation – Warwick Anderson

We explore the health of the nation from six leaders from six health organisations.

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) is Australia’s peak body for supporting health and medical research; for providing evidence-based health advice; and for establishing the ethical framework for research around health in Australia.

Describe your role

As CEO of NHMRC, I am the head of an organisation dedicated to bringing science into health and my job is to make sure that happens.

What do you believe are the biggest health challenges in Australia?

In one sense, our greatest challenge is to make sure that our health system functions from the basis of scientific evidence of what is of value and what is not. It’s also a challenge financially because for the system to be sustainable into the future, we’ve got to make sure that our taxpayer funds are used where there is evidence of value.

With regard to specific diseases, in our current strategic plan we’ve identified what we regard as the major health issues in Australia – arthritis and musculoskeletal conditions, asthma, cancer, cardiovascular health and stroke, dementia, diabetes mellitus, injury prevention and control, mental health and obesity.

Many health advocates will say it is dementia or it is obesity but most patients aren’t that neat, in a way you could say the biggest challenge is chronic disease because people often will suffer from a variety of ill health.

What do you believe are the biggest health opportunities in Australia?

We’ve just published guidelines on the clinical management of obesity, which we see as a huge opportunity in Australia. We want to prevent obesity, which is why we put so much effort into the dietary guidelines and the guide to healthy eating.

The NHMRC is very focused on how we can help governments and decision makers in health cope with the continuing cost of providing healthcare. The strongest lever that governments will have in the future will be to rely on research evidence when making decisions. It is now to some extent, but it is going to have to be even greater in the future.

What is NHMRC doing to improve the health of Australia?

Primarily, we fund truly excellent research. We fund any type of research that is relevant to prevention, treatment of disease, discovery of basic causes of disease or research on how the whole health system works.

The second thing would be our work on clinical guidelines and evidence-based public statements to inform decision makers and the public about what the evidence shows is best or should be done.

Based on your role, knowledge and experience, what advice do you have for Australians to improve their health?

Look after your kids. The more we understand about how ill health attacks us as adults, the more we understand that it begins very early in life. There is very good evidence to suggest that if you have a healthy start to life, indeed while you’re still in the womb, but over the first years, the less likely you are to suffer premature disease as an adult. Eating well, getting enough exercise and stimulating the brain are all so important for children and it has to be the responsibility of parents.

If you were Prime Minister for a day, what would be the top three things you would do to improve the health of Australia?

That’s a difficult question for a public servant to answer. I’d make sure there was enough money to fund all the research we need to have a healthy system and help cure the diseases my fellow Australians suffer from.

I’m a great admirer of what Michelle Obama has done in the US in the obesity and healthy eating side, I think PMs and others have a great opportunity to talk about health, making sure that the public understand that it’s really important.

I’d also make sure the NHMRC healthy eating guidelines were on display at every banquet we held!

What was the most recent global conference/industry event you attended and strongest message you took away?

I’m just back from meeting my equivalents around the world to discuss strategies to help each other with issues that arise.

We’ve been thinking about how best to step across the gap between when we learn about something and how it’s implemented in the health system. It’s inspiring, it’s fantastically helpful for me and extremely exciting to interact with my fellow heads to hear what they’re doing and to think about how we can do something like that here in Australia.

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