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 access to health services Access to health services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people typically die at much younger ages than other Australians and are more likely to experience disability and reduced quality of life because of ill health. One important contributor to health and wellbeing is access to health services. This paper examines Indigenous Australians’ use of a range of health services, including those that provide preventive, primary and community health, hospital or specialised care.

Preventive health services

Preventive health services are aimed at protecting or promoting health or preventing illness. Such services are delivered via both mainstream and Indigenous-specific programs in the form of activities such as screening, health checks and immunisation. Indigenous Australians were less likely than non-Indigenous Australians to access a range of preventive health services. For example, in December 2009, Indigenous children were less likely than their non-Indigenous counterparts to be fully immunised at 1, 2 and 5 years of age.

Coverage of selected vaccines at 1, 2 and 5 years of age, selected jurisdictions, 2009

Immunisation at 1, 2, 5 years  

Primary and community health services

Primary care and community health services include care from general practitioners (GPs), allied health professionals, pharmacists and other practitioners and are the first point of contact with the health system for most patients. Indigenous Australians can access primary care and community health services through mainstream services, such as GP services, and Indigenous-specific services, such as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander primary health-care services.
In 2009–10, general practice-type service use, reimbursed by Medicare, was similar for Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous Australians.

An indirect measure of access to primary care is the rate of potentially preventable hospitalisations (PPH; defined as those that potentially could have been prevented through the timely and appropriate provision of primary care or other non-hospital services). The rate of PPH for Indigenous Australians was 4.9 times the rate for other Australians in 2008–09.

Hospital services

There were more than 8 million hospital separations recorded across Australia in 2008–09. Around 291,000 of these were for people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander origin. Excluding data for Tasmania, the Australian Capital Territory and private hospitals in the Northern Territory, Indigenous Australians accounted for 3.6% of all separations from hospital.

Compared with other Australians, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were more than two times as likely to be hospitalised than other Australians although less likely to undergo a procedure while in hospital. Indigenous Australians had longer waiting times than other Australians for a range of public elective surgeries, including cataract extraction, septoplasty and total hip replacement.

Specialised services

Specialist services are delivered in a variety of settings within Australia, including hospitals (admitted and non-admitted care), private practice in the community and specialist services delivered or arranged by community health-care services. It is difficult to measure in a comparable way the use of specialist services across all settings, as national data are not available for some specialist care provided in public hospitals (such as outpatient services). This is particularly relevant when considering access by Indigenous Australians, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are more likely to use public hospital services than other Australians.

In 2009–10, Indigenous Australians had slightly lower usage rates of Medicare-reimbursed specialist services than non-Indigenous Australians.

In 2008–09, around 17,000 treatment episodes for alcohol and/or other drugs were provided to clients of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander origin, accounting for 12% of all treatment episodes.

More information

Access to health services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (617KB PDF) examines Indigenous access to a range of health services available via mainstream and Indigenous-specific services.