Tiny portion of health funding allocated for obesity prevention

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Just $778m in national health budgets was allocated between 2013 and 2022, totalling 0.1% of federal health investment.

Only 0.1% of the federal government’s health budget targeted obesity prevention over the past nine years, new Deakin University research has shown. 

The study, published in a special issue of the Sax Institute’s Public Health Research & Practice, showed that between 2013 and 2022, investment in obesity prevention initiatives totalled approximately $778 million across federal health budgets between 2013 and 2022.

According to the National Obesity Strategy, in 2018, obesity cost the Australian community $11.8 billion and if nothing was done, may cost an estimated $87.7 billion [per year] by 2032.

Lead author of the Deakin University research Michelle Tran told Health Services Daily the significant gaps revealed in federal funding for obesity prevention initiatives were “concerning”, particularly given recent trends in obesity prevalence and obesity-related health complications across Australia

“We were a bit concerned [by the] low investment in interventions to help Australians lead healthier lives, compared to the high costs related to obesity and obesity-related illnesses,” Ms Tran said.

“We know that Australia has one of the highest rates of obesity in the world, and [obesity] is the second leading risk factor for death and non-communicable diseases nationwide.”

Dr Terri-Lynne South, Chair of the RACGP Specific Interests Obesity group, said the findings revealed a “huge discrepancy” between federal investment in obesity prevention initiatives and obesity prevalence nationwide, with GPs too “time poor” to have the capacity to conduct preventive health consultations with patients

“People need such ongoing support that the five [allied health] visits … per year is not enough,” Dr South told newsGP.

“There is a huge discrepancy there and we are getting worse, so we need to be putting in measures to turn the tide of this.

“We need to have a way where we [as GPs] are not being limited by time and therefore financial constraints to be able to do a better job.”

According to Dr South, alongside increasing federal funding allocations for obesity prevention research, additional investment should also be directed towards increasing subsidies for prescription medications targeting weight management and weight loss for patients with obesity.

“There are multiple medications we can use as adjuvants to a basis of lifestyle intervention. They should never be used on their own, but it is something to augment those healthy habit gains,” Dr South said.
“[However], there is not a single [listing] on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme that would help patients afford those medications.
“Compare that to other chronic and complex medical conditions such as high blood pressure or type 2 diabetes.
“I think this is showing some discrimination and stigma for the health condition called obesity.”

The Deakin University study found there were 34 funding allocations for 26 discrete obesity prevention initiatives identified, amounting to a total of $658 million, with no funding allocated for obesity prevention in the 2015 and 2020 federal health budgets.

Nearly a third of the federally funded obesity prevention initiatives were targeted at elite sport, despite a recent systematic review showing such initiatives were proven to have little to no effect on increasing physical activity or participation in sport among the general population.

Funding for research targeting obesity prevention was also low across the three largest federally funded research bodies, the NHMRC, Australian Research Council and MRFF, comprising 1.1%, 0.2% and 0.8% of their total funding, respectively.

Within the NHMRC, 104 funding allocations totalling $88 million were awarded to obesity-related projects, with 61 focused on identifying obesity-related risk factors and 43 targeting obesity prevention.

Within the MRFF, only 19 projects out of 1155 funding allocations were related to obesity, amounting to $22 million in total funding, with 12 addressing obesity-related risk factors and 7 targeting obesity prevention.

According to Ms Tran, competing demands on federal health budgets and the complex nature of obesity were the major barriers to increasing funding allocations for obesity prevention initiatives.

“There are competing priorities that require funding from the federal government, almost unlimited health wants and needs and finite resources to be allocated to address those needs,” she said.

“The current economic landscape is really challenging with high-risk patients and high costs, [and] the prevention of obesity is also less immediate and tangible, the rewards may not be as immediate as allocating funding to treatments for acute conditions, for instance.

“What we found was the investment in obesity prevention in general, is relatively low, and [the study] highlighted that because there are limited resources and competing priorities within the preventive health areas, it’s important to prioritise evidence-based, cost-effective prevention interventions.”

While it was crucial that the federal government provide “committed and continuous funding” towards obesity prevention to bridge existing gaps, Ms Tran said additional funding supporting the implementation of the National Obesity Strategy across all levels of government would also be vital to bolstering obesity prevention and reducing prevalence nationwide.   

“The national obesity strategy is a step in the right direction that sets out actions that should be taken in the next 10 years to guide all governments and other agencies to prevent, reduce and treat obesity in Australia, but it’s important these actions then be followed through to make meaningful changes to our current rates of obesity [prevalence],” she said.

“We know that there are evidence-based, cost-effective obesity interventions, which have great potential to result in long term health gains and cost savings, but those interventions require committed and continuous funding [to facilitate their] implementation.”

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