Have we reached peak health in Australia? Is life expectancy set to fall?

In November 2021, the ABS reported that life expectancy in Australia reached a new high, but can we be sure that the incremental gains of recent decades will be sustained. Research shows that life expectancy can decline even in the most advanced countries. Notably the UK and the US have observed recent declines, with a 2018 BMJ article noting that in 2014/15, the “declines in life expectancy were more widespread and larger in magnitude than anything observed in decades”. No doubt the impact of ‘excess deaths,’ due to the global COVID pandemic, will be studied in terms of its influence but this should not blind us to underlying changes in global life expectancy.

Irrespective of the pandemic, analysis of these underlying trends should remind us that we cannot take improvements in life expectancy for granted. Improvements in life expectancy in Australia over recent decades are impressive, but rates can also decline quickly as the experience of other developed countries has shown.

 What role do PHNs have in sustaining improvements in life expectancy?

With limited fundholding and variable leverage with the larger sector actors, one could argue that PHNs are effectively by-standers and observers of these greater demographic trends. Conversely leading PHNs may appreciate their unique position in mustering strategic regional coalitions that will see sector providers collaborating to meet emerging challenges such as:

  • Hospital demand routinely outstripping capacity
  • Diminishing access to General Practitioners
  • Burgeoning rates of complex chronic illness
  • Structural ageing of the Australian community
  • Structural ageing of the healthcare workforce, including General Practice

Deteriorating global economic conditions also means that the fiscal challenge of funding demand growth will ‘handbrake’ resource intensive change initiatives. Thoughtful and nuanced change is indicated instead of cash splurges on new hospitals.

Thought starters:

  • Who among us can be comfortable with the prospect of having a shorter life than previous generations?
  • Is your PHN mustering strategic coalitions to build the capability of primary health to respond to these challenges?
  • What steps are you taking to improve life expectancy in your First Nations’ communities?

Key take-aways:

  • Life expectancy can decline as well as increase.
  • PHNs can play a key role in arresting any decline in life expectancy in your region.