Health policy to focus on prevention more than cure


A NEW public health policy emphasising prevention of illnesses rather than providing more treatments is to be developed by the Government.

Ahead of an announcement today Minister for Health James Reilly has signalled the shift in future Government public health policy away from the provision of treatment for illness by the State towards promoting health and preventing the onset and progression of diseases ahead.

He said an inevitable increase in levels of chronic health conditions such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease, mental illness and arthritis could not be halted or addressed through the provision of more health services.

He also maintained that current models of healthcare delivery would not be able to cope with future demand.

Dr Reilly indicated that in future the health of the nation could not just be the responsibility of the Department of Health but that the whole of society must work to promote and protect health.

Speaking in advance of the launch of a new initiative to develop a revised public health policy, Dr Reilly said for much of the 20th century the health of the Irish population improved steadily because of better treatments for major diseases.

However he warned that this “window is slowly closing”.

“Our ageing population, together with adverse trends in obesity, diet, exercise and other risk factors means that the level of chronic health conditions – cancer, heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease, mental illness, arthritis – will certainly increase.”

Dr Reilly said that this “negative pattern” could not be arrested or coped with by providing increased levels of health services.

“Nor can current models of health service delivery be expected to cope with future demand, not least because, over the past 25 years, service delivery has become grossly skewed,” he said.

“Too many problems are addressed at the highest level of complexity, which means that acute hospitals have become the first, rather than the last, port of call in many instances.”

“Most of this care should be provided in the primary healthcare setting, with a strong focus on prevention. Prevention is crucial: approximately two thirds of the predicted disease burden is caused by risk factors which can be prevented.

“In addition, emphasis must be laid on the development of self-care programmes for patients with chronic conditions.”

The Minster said the new focus must be on ensuring health and wellbeing not just on the delivery of better health services.

Equal access to healthcare was one of the key principles underpinning Government policy. However, equality must go further.

“Socio-economic inequalities within society precipitate inequalities in health,” he said.

“According to the World Health Organisation, factors such as poverty poor housing, unhealthy early childhood conditions and low occupational status are important determinants of most diseases. Almost half of people living in consistent poverty in Ireland have some form of chronic illness.”

Dr Reilly said the Government could not force people to live healthy lives. However, he said it could help people “by making the healthy choice become the easy choice”.

The Minister along with Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald and Ministers of State Róisín Shortall and Kathleen Lynch will attend a conference in Dublin today which is to lead to the development of a new public health policy.