MATTERS OF PUBLIC INTEREST;Arthritis – 06 Jul 2011

Today I rise to speak on a matter of public interest: arthritis. Arthritis has a significant impact upon many millions of people in our community—mothers, fathers, grand­mothers, grandfathers and sons and daugh­ters of all ages. It affects more people than do cancer, heart disease or asthma. In fact, arthritis is the single biggest cause of disability in Australia. Research shows that there are 3.85 million Australians currently living with the pain and discomfort of this condition. That is a significant proportion of the Australian population. Arthritis affects people’s capacity to work, to live independ­ently and to play with their grandchildren.

Arthritis is often thought of as a single disease. In fact, it is an umbrella term for more than 100 medical conditions that affect the musculoskeletal system—more specific­ally, joints where two or more bones meet. While there are about 100 forms of arthritis, the three most significant—osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and gout—account for more than 95 percent of cases in Australia. Arthritis related problems include pain, stiffness, inflammation and damage to joint cartilage, which is the tissue that covers the ends of bones and surrounding structures. This can result in the joint-weakness, instability and deformities that can interfere with the most basic daily tasks—walking, driving a car, preparing food or just holding everyday household items such as a coffee cup.

There is a widely held belief that arthritis is simply a consequence of age—the pain of growing old. In truth, it is not a natural part of ageing; 2.4 million people who suffer from the disease are of working age, and, sadly, children suffer from arthritis as well. As 62 percent of those Australians who live with arthritis are of working age, the disease also has a significant impact on the economy. According to an Access Eco­nomics report from 2007, the total cost of arthritis to the Australian economy is $23.9 billion in medical care and indirect costs such as loss of earnings and lost production. Research suggests, however, that early intervention can delay the onset of the disease and may reduce the number of cases of osteoarthritis by about 500,000 within 15 years. Although arthritis can be delayed and managed, it cannot currently be cured, so, while the condition is usually manageable, it invariably impacts on a patient’s quality of life and includes varying degrees of discomfort and pain. There are, however, people to help patients manage the disease.

Arthritis Australia is a not-for-profit organisation and the peak arthritis organisation in Australia. It is supported by affiliate offices in every state and territory, including my home state of Tasmania. Arthritis Australia relies on the generosity of community groups, individuals and corporate sponsors for most of its funding. However, it also receives funding support from the Department of Health and Ageing for a number of its projects. Arthritis Australia provides a number of important services to our communities: it provides support and information to people with arthritis as well as to their families and friends; it promotes awareness among leaders in business, industry and government of the challenges faced by the many people across the community who are living with arthritis; it funds research into potential causes and possible cures as well as better ways to live with arthritis; and it aims to keep health professionals such as physiotherapists, occupational therapists and community nurses informed. Arthritis Australia needs and deserves all the support we can give it. This support can be given in a number of ways. You can make a donation—including a special occasion donation for birthdays, anniversaries or weddings. You can become a member, a sponsor or a volunteer. You can make a bequest in your will or invest in arthritis research. As parliamentarians we can support Arthritis Australia even through small actions such as putting a link to the Arthritis Australia website on our own personal websites, as I have done.

As a member of the Parliamentary Friends of Arthritis group I attended a meeting at Parliament House for the launch of a social impact study, the Voice of arthritis, which was prepared by Arthritis Australia. The study highlighted in detail to what degree arthritis affects the lives of people with the disease. To help improve the lives of people with arthritis, the Australian government has allocated significant funds through the Better Arthritis and Osteoporosis Care initiative. Better Arthritis and Osteoporosis Care is an initiative to improve prevention of arthritis and osteoporosis, to facilitate early detection and to improve management and quality of life for people with these conditions. Running since 2006, the Better Arthritis and Osteoporosis Care initiative’s emphasises work on juvenile idiopathic arthritis, improved primary care, self-management and secondary and tertiary prevention. In March, during Arthritis Awareness Week, the Minister for Mental Health and Ageing, Mark Butler, announced $14.4 million to continue funding this initiative for a further four years. This initiative is guided by the national action plan for osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and osteoporosis, the evidence to support the national action plan, and a national service improvement frame­work for osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and osteoporosis. It provides funding for activities under the following strategic program areas: awareness raising, consumer education and self-management, health service improvement, health professional education, data monitoring and evaluation.

The department is currently working with the national peak bodies—Arthritis Australia and Osteoporosis Australia—to deliver key components of the initiative, including workplace promotion, self-management and the local exercise program. The government also provides funding to health professional bodies and other government agencies under this initiative to deliver different programs including: national monitoring and surveill­ance of arthritis and musculoskeletal con­ditions, including osteoporosis; programs to assist health professionals gain a better understanding about caring for people living with arthritis and osteoporosis; and programs to evaluate the initiative. The government is also investing significant funding through existing initiatives and the national health reforms, which will benefit all Australians, including people living with arthritis and osteoporosis. Some of the major features include expenditure of $206 million in 2009-10 on relevant drugs for arthritis, osteo­porosis and musculoskeletal conditions under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme; $30 million in 2010 for research into arthritis, osteoporosis and other musculo­skeletal conditions through the National Health and Medical Research Council; chronic disease management items in the Medicare Benefits Schedule; the Home and Community Care program, a joint Australian state and territory initiative, which provides a range of services, such as domestic assistance, home maintenance, professional allied health care and nursing services in order to support people to be more independent at home and in the community.

The community package care programs consist of the Community Aged Care Package, Extended Aged Care at Home and Extended Aged Care at Home Dementia programs. These programs provide an individually tailored package of care for older Australians as a community alternative to residential care. The types of services that may be provided as part of a package include personal care, social support, transport to appointments, home help, meal preparation and gardening.

While the conditions that fall under the umbrella term ‘arthritis’ may not currently be curable, it is hoped that these programs can help everyday Australians living with the condition. Through a combination of better awareness, delay to the onset of the disease and better management of the disease, it is expected that these government initiatives will ease the suffering of those living with these conditions and help improve their quality of life.