Antibiotic and antiviral prescriptions down in 2020, while Australians did a run on asthma medicines

By Melissa Coade

February 1, 2022

42% of people who presented to emergency and were admitted waited four hours or less to be admitted to a public hospital. (Drazen/Adobe)

The Productivity Commission has released performance reporting data on Australia’s health sector for 2020-21, showing that with the onset of the pandemic, there was a large increase in prescriptions for medicines used to treat respiratory-related illnesses such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

The Report on Government Services (ROGS) data for the health sector was released on Monday. The annual data scores the sector across four areas, including public hospitals, primary and community health, ambulance services, and services for mental health. 

An analysis of the dataset suggested that the sudden demand for medicines used to treat respiratory-related illnesses in March 2020 could be attributed to patient-purchasing behaviours following the introduction of COVID restrictions. 

The researcher’s explanation as to why antibiotic and antiviral prescriptions decreased that same year was that physical distancing and vigilant hand hygiene measures may have resulted in a lower incidence of infectious diseases. 

Another notable change was a decline in breast cancer screening compared with the year before. It is believed this was a result of what is assumed to be the impact of COVID-19 (as BreastScreen Australia services temporarily closed or operated at reduced capacity).

Last month, Productivity Commission chair Michael Brennan issued a statement explaining that the data would be used by decision-makers to drive improvements in the efficiency and effectiveness of health services. The information would also enable governments to learn from one another, he added. 

“ROGS has been in existence now for 27 years, making it a valuable tool for examining trends over time, as well as comparisons between jurisdictions,” Brennan said. 

“It is encouraging to see that all Australian governments remain committed to transparency and accountability in public reporting on these services,” he added.

Spending for health in 2020-21

Government recurrent spending for the sector was this year estimated to be $122.2 billion, totalling 40.6% of total services examined for ROGS. Once local government funding for health services beyond the scope of the report has been included, government expenditure on health in 2019-20 was estimated to have reached $142.6 billion.

“Public hospitals was the largest contributor ($76.7 billion (in 2019-20)) [to overall expenditure], followed by primary and community health ($41.1 billion (in 2019-20)) and ambulance services ($4.4 billion (in 2020-21)),” the report said. 

Health services in a pandemic year

A number of COVID-related impacts were highlighted as having a possible impact on the latest ROGS findings. This included the increased use of telehealth services by general practitioners, specialists and allied health providers from March 2020, and also temporary increases in incentives to encourage bulk billing for some services between March to October 2020.  

In primary care, some key findings across 16 indicator results showed that patient satisfaction for government and community health services were high quality. 

Nationally, in 2020-21, the majority of patients who met with a GP reported that their doctor listened carefully always or often (92.7%), showed respect always or often (95%), and spent enough time with them always or often (91.8%).

Similarly, high satisfaction levels were reported for dentists, with the majority of patients saying their treating dentist listened carefully (96.7%), showed respect (97.5%), and spent enough time with them (97.6%).

One of the findings under the ‘continuity of care’ indicator for patients who receive health services coordinated by ​​three or more professionals was that nationally in 202-21, issues that arose were caused by a lack of communication between professionals. 

For public hospitals, emergency department (ED) wait times in 2020-21 showed that all triage category 1 patients were attended to in a ‘clinically appropriate timeframe’, and that the proportion of patients who visited the ED for four hours or less was 67% (an improvement on 2015-16 figures of 73.2%).

Nationally in 2020-21, 42% of people who presented to emergency and were admitted waited four hours or less to be admitted to a public hospital. Data shows that this proportion has declined each year over the five years.

Waiting-time indicators for elective surgery showed that nationally, patients were waiting longer to be admitted in 2020-21 compared with the year before. The latest data showed that 50% of patients were admitted within 48 days (an increase from 39 days in 2019-20) and 90% admitted within 348 days (up from 281 days in 2019-20).

Reported patient satisfaction in hospitals showed that frontline staff showed respect and spent enough time with them (above 82%) but that, generally speaking, they experienced more positive experiences with nurses compared to doctors and specialists. Hospitals also scored generally better than EDs for patient satisfaction.


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