Experts say Australia’s health system is under strain and in urgent need of transformation.

A roundtable of national health and consumer leaders have urged political leaders to recognise and act on the many calls for primary health care reform that have been made in recent years.

The growing burden of chronic disease, an ageing population, unsustainable funding and perverse incentives are among key factors making change imperative, their new report finds.

The report, Snakes and Ladders: The Journey to Primary Care Integration, proposes the staged implementation over five years of a series of changes aimed at removing funding barriers to quality health care, moving away from largely fee-for-service medical care and enabling regionally, integrated health services through combined funding contributed by all levels of government.

“While Australians generally enjoy some of the best health outcomes in the world, it is widely recognised the current health system is under increasing strain.  Yet there is much we can do to future proof it. We need to start by making better use of the skills of our health professionals by developing systems that reward coordinated, consumer-focused care rather than the current episodic fee-based system,” the CEO of the Consumers Health Forum, Leanne Wells, said.

Professor Claire Jackson, from the University of Queensland’s MRI Centre for Health System Reform and Integration, says: “We have had a number of national reports in recent years urging reforms that would more effectively focus care on patients, particularly those with complex and chronic conditions.  But, a combination of factors have frustrated change.

“These include Commonwealth-state funding rules that perpetuate siloed care, historic payment systems that reward episodes rather than continuity of care, and structural barriers to clinicians working in more coordinated teams across sectors.”

Professor David Peiris, from The George Institute for Global Health, says: “Our report builds on established evidence from Australia and other countries with comparable health systems.

“This evidence clearly shows that strong primary health care systems are fundamental to increasing efficiency, reducing hospitalisations, lowering health inequalities and ultimately improving health outcomes. Australia has an opportunity to be a global leader in primary health care system reform and this report provides clear recommendations for how we can take action to achieve this.”

The report identifies 10 priorities for action including boosted funding for a revised model of the existing Health Care Homes program, which is aimed at providing better co-ordinated care for people with chronic and complex conditions.

It also recommends strengthened Medicare funding and combined federal and state/territory funding for the existing Primary Health Networks and Local Hospital Networks to prioritise prevention and integrated services with mandated consumer participation and decision-making.