Opinion: John Loof
New Zealand is not the healthiest country in the world but we could be if we wanted to be. We aren’t even the healthiest country in the neighbourhood with our Australian cousins enjoying longer life expectancy, lower infant mortality and better cancer treatment rates.
With a bit of collective effort, we could easily climb up the rankings but first we must understand why our figures don’t look so great.
The good news is that it isn’t because Australian doctors are smarter than ours or that their nurses are better trained. Money doesn’t necessarily buy you the best health either. The USA spends twice as much on health per capita as Italy or Spain but ranks well below those countries in many indicators.
What seems key is the strength of a nation’s public health system and the willingness of governments to enact strong public health strategies. Bolder and more progressive health policy pays significant dividends especially in areas of disease prevention.
Australia first introduced a national bowel screening programme in 2006 whereas our programme won’t be fully operational until 2021. Their political leaders committed to the idea, worked with clinicians, rolled out the necessary budget and countless lives have been saved each year through early detection of cancer.
Across the ditch they were the first country in the world to introduce standardised (plain) packaging for cigarettes. Along the way they braved, and won, a protracted and costly legal battle with the international tobacco industry. New Zealand’s progress towards its bold goal of being Smokefree by 2025 appears to have stalled through a lack of Government action.
Thanks to a range of Australian federal and state measures, their smoking rates are now around 4 per cent lower than ours. Again, thousands of lives are being saved as a result of assertive public health policy and standing up to industry.
Nothing illustrates the overall picture more clearly than the Concord study which was published in the Lancet earlier in the year. Covering a period from 2000 to 2014, the study concludes that 2382 New Zealanders would have been successfully treated if New Zealand had the same cancer survival rates as Australia.
In his recent visit, Australian oncologist Professor John Zalcberg was quick to point out New Zealand patients are missing out on access to proven cancer drugs that are publicly available in places such as Latvia and Greece. He believes that Pharmac, our centralised drug buying agency, is too rigid and too slow in its approach to the funding of new and innovative medicines.
With Daffodil Day happening today, the Cancer Society believes it is timely to ask people to think of those 2382 families who may have unnecessarily lost a loved one and say that our country has to do better.
There are no simple fixes. However, with many treatment, screening and prevention targets not being met, the Cancer Society believes this country urgently needs a comprehensive 10-year cancer control strategy that will enhance the hauora, the health that we all seek.
In addition, Pharmac should instigate an “early access to medicines scheme” allowing temporary, early access to breakthrough new cancer drugs where there are genuinely no other treatments available.
Perhaps the most challenging area is in disease prevention. Our society needs to prioritise things that make people healthy over things that make business wealthy. We cannot hide from the fact that a third of our children are either obese or overweight and the foundations are being laid for significant increases in preventable diseases, including cancer.
However, well-resourced lobby groups operate sophisticated strategies that appear to intimidate our politicians into believing major health issues stemming from the consumption of junk food, tobacco and alcohol will be resolved through education and industry self-regulation.
Politicians from all sides need to come together to create the right vision. Our country could choose many futures for itself. Being known as the healthiest country on the planet would suit most of us just fine.
• John Loof is chief executive of the Cancer Society Auckland Northland.