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The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s (AIHW) two-yearly health report card, Australia’s health 2022, was released today.

The report shows Australia is generally a healthy nation compared with similar countries, yet there are still areas for improvement. Australia’s health 2022 also examined changes in the health of Australians throughout the pandemic.

“Today’s report comes at an important time as Australians continue to experience the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2022, no health issue stands above, or has had as wide-reaching impacts on our population and health system, with these affects to be felt for many years to come,” said AIHW Deputy Chief Executive Officer Matthew James.

The report found Australians are living longer – life expectancy at birth was 83.0 years in 2020, the sixth highest among the 38 OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries. Specifically, males born in 2018–2020 can expect to live 81.2 years and females 85.3 years, up from 55.2 and 58.8 years, respectively, for those born in 1901–1910.

“Over the last 100 years, there has been a 98% decline in the age-standardised death rate from infectious diseases (such as tuberculosis, polio and diphtheria) due to childhood immunisation and disease control measures,” Mr James pointed out.

For example, in the first decade of the 20th century, one in 10 children died before their 5th birthday (26% of all deaths, compared with 0.7% in 2020), primarily from infectious diseases.

But with a population that is living longer, the country is now experiencing higher rates of chronic and age-related conditions, such as dementia, said Mr James.

“We know that older Australians use a higher proportion of hospital and other health services and 54% of all subsidised medicines were dispensed to people aged 65 and over.”

Despite the number of Australians experiencing chronic health conditions, there have been marked improvements in many areas of health, including cancer survival, infant mortality, and deaths from coronary heart disease, the report found.

In 2020–21, almost half (47%, or 11.6 million) of Australians were estimated to have one or more common chronic health conditions (including diabetes, cancer, mental and behavioural conditions, and chronic kidney disease).

According to Australia’s health 2022, many chronic health conditions share preventable risk factors, such as smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and not getting enough exercise – in fact, over one-third (38%) of the nation’s ‘disease burden’ is due to preventable risk factors.

Expanding waistlines are a notable example: two in three adults (67%) are either overweight or obese, while carrying excess weight is responsible for 8.4% of total disease burden.

Elsewhere, seven in 10 (70%) people survived at least five years after a cancer diagnosis during 2014–2018 – an improvement from about five in 10 (52%) in 1989–1993.

However, some population groups have different experiences of health than others, the report shows.

Generally, the higher a person’s socioeconomic position, the better their health. If all Australians had experienced the same disease burden as people living in the highest socioeconomic areas in 2018, the total burden could have been reduced by one-fifth (21%).

In May 2021, almost three in 10 adults with disability self-reported their physical health as excellent or very good, compared with 55% of adults without disability.
Since the emergence of COVID-19 in Australia, there has been extraordinary public interest in the health of Australians, including the efforts made and measures put in place to protect collective health.

“Throughout 2020 and most of 2021, Australia fared well compared with most countries. While Australia has world-leading vaccination rates for two doses, millions of Australians who contracted COVID-19 have experienced the direct impacts through acute illness, with some facing longer term impacts, such as long-COVID,” said Mr. James.

“A range of longer-term health affects remain unknown, highlighting the need to continue to monitor these population health impacts into the future.”

Meanwhile, average life satisfaction for Australians fell substantially during the early stages of the pandemic (from 6.9 out of 10 in January 2020 to 6.5 in April 2020). By January 2021, the average level of life satisfaction had returned to pre-pandemic levels and this remained the case in April 2021. However, in August 2021 life satisfaction was back to the to the same level as April 2020. As of April 2022, life satisfaction is yet to return to pre-pandemic levels.

At the onset of the pandemic, there were also concerns that any economic downturn could have a significant negative impact on the number of deaths by suicide in Australia.

“The AIHW has compiled data from suicide registers as part of our ongoing work on suicide and self-harm reporting. This has shown that, despite a rise in the use of mental health services and an increase in psychological distress, COVID-19 has not been associated with a rise in suspected deaths by suicide,” Mr. James said.

Additionally, the rate of severe disease from COVID-19 (ICU admission and/or death) was seven times higher for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people compared with the Australian population overall.

“There is also a need to focus on the medium and longer-term health effects and health system use among all population groups,’ said Mr. James.

The AIHW is establishing a national COVID-19 linked data set that will bring together COVID-19 cases collected in state and territory notification systems and existing health data sets, including deaths, hospitals, aged care, immunisation, Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) and Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) data.

This will provide an asset for use in COVID-19 research into the health effects of COVID-19. The linked data set will also include research to inform health service planning, monitoring and evaluation, and health policy development at the national and state and territory level.