Australia's Health 2016

Indigenous Australians still battling for equal health outcomes

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) released their publication Australia’s health 2016 earlier this week revealing a persisting health gap for Indigenous Australians, particularly those living in rural and remote areas[1].

Whilst the report findings show overall, Australians are living longer, with a reduced rate of disability and illness, concerning trends continue impacting on the overall health report of the nation. The report which defined health as more than length of life, but whether the years lived by Australians are free of disability, illness and other factors affecting quality of life, found the rate of chronic disease had risen and the health of certain socioeconomic groups had not improved to the same extent as the general population.

The most recent data shows, that whilst health outcomes have improved in a number of key areas such as life expectancy and child mortality, as a population Indigenous Australians experience a significant gap when compared to non-Indigenous Australians. Estimations show Indigenous Australians have a life expectancy of 10years less than non-Indigenous Australians, a three to four times greater prevalence of chronic disease such as diabetes, greater prevalence of disability and death from potentially avoidable causes.

The AIHW attributed these health gaps to three key factors:

  • Differences in social determinants of health such as employment and income, education and housing;
  • Differences in behavioural determinants of health such as higher smoking rates, risky levels of alcohol consumption and lower rates of exercise participation; and
  • Difficulty in accessing affordable and culturally appropriate health services.

These determinants were further exacerbated in Indigenous Australian’s living in rural and remote areas.

An earlier report, also by the AIHW, showed the overall prevalence of mental health conditions and the presence of psychological distress in Indigenous Australians was significantly higher than in non-Indigenous Australians [2]. Further evidence of the impact of mental health on Indigenous Australians can be seen in the suicide rate which is almost twice than of non-Indigenous Australians. When suicidality was examined across the age groups this increased to become five times as high in Indigenous Australians aged 15-19years. Whilst deaths from suicide have decreased overall in Australia, this trend has not been seen in Indigenous Australians where death and hospitalisation rates for suicide and suicide attempts have remained constant.

One of the key areas influencing the health of Indigenous Australians was socioeconomic position as determined by education, occupation and income. Australians with higher incomes live longer and have better health than those with lower incomes.

The unemployment rate is approximately four times higher for Indigenous Australians than for age-standardised non-Indigenous Australians [2]. It is logical to conclude that in order to improve the health of Australia’s Indigenous peoples a wider bio-psych-social approach must be taken. Providing support to find and maintain meaningful employment as well as managing mental and physical health in culturally appropriate ways will be the key to improving future health outcomes.

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[1] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Australia’s health 2016 (2016), available at: http://www.aihw.gov.au/australias-health/2016/

[2] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, The Health and Welfare of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples 2015 (2015), available at: http://www.aihw.gov.au/indigenous-observatory/reports/health-and-welfare-2015/