It’s time to control the danger of preventable illness

It’s time to control the danger of preventable illness.


Lucy Byrne and Penny Terry – Healthy Tasmania Pty Ltd



A few months ago now, we were mid-run on one of the many eerily warm summer evenings with the smell of smoke thick in the air. We were talking about how brilliantly communities, leaders and fire fighters pull together during a bushfire to protect lives.  Then a strange complex thought appeared.  What can health leaders learn from bushfire prevention techniques?


The answer is, a lot.


Tasmanians have long held beliefs and expectation of how community leaders should plan for, fund and implement measures to protect their safety; their lives. When there is a bushfire, it’s expected a community will call in the experts to fight the fire on its many different fronts, using best practice and evidence-based methods, and educate the community about how to keep themselves safe. There is also the expectation that further action will be taken to prevent more fires in the future, particularly in high risk areas.


We started wondering why our policy makers and the broader community don’t have the same approach to controlling preventable illness?


This comparison to a bushfire is more than a simple analogy. Preventable illness in Tasmania is statistically much more dangerous to our lives than a bushfire.


When there is a fire we are deeply affected by the loss of homes, memories and the destruction of our natural environment. We also rejoice when, yet again, there is no loss of life. 


Yet, everyday Tasmanian lives are lost because of health conditions that could have been prevented.


Why do we not treat the danger of preventable health conditions in the same way we do the danger of bushfire? Logically, we should be more scared, but we’re not. We should have a much bigger and better plan, but we don’t. 


A wise mentor of ours suggests that the suddenness of fire arrests our attention whereas the silent creep of preventable illness and death slips by unnoticed.


Our fire fighters are legends. Let’s learn from them.  They of course have their own battles needing more support, funding and even better systems to keep up with the growing threat of fire so they can continue to protect our lives, our homes, our communities and our increasingly vulnerable environment.


This analogy however can be useful to illustrate how current measures to control preventative illness are inadequate, underfunded, and unable to protect and defend our people from premature death.


What would happen if we all approached preventable illness the same way we do a bushfire; with an urgent, coordinated, evidenced-based, community-wide approach with support from experts, buy-in from relevant stakeholders and supported by large scale awareness and promotional campaigns?


The good news is much of the work has already been done.


The knowledge, skills and commitment are both available and on standby to ‘put out the fires’, we just need to deploy and support them better.


The bad news is the current system of short-term, box ticking funding agreements in health promotion and preventation isn’t helping.


It could be argued that short-term funding in health is like putting one fire fighter at the fire front and asking them to do the best they can. When their backpack of water runs out, they have to go and source some more. By the time that they get back to the fire, any progress they had made is lost, and fire front has jumped forward.


We wouldn’t except this process for bushfire, a much lesser threat to our lives, so why do we accept it in preventative health care?


This article first appeared in The Examiner newspaper online here
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