Healthcare in Australia

10 Dec 2020 10 min read

Healthcare in Australia

Healthcare in Australia

The Australian healthcare system is one of the best in the world. It provides quality, safe, and affordable healthcare to those living in – and some who are just visiting – Australia. Australia’s healthcare system’s foundations lie in ‘health promotion and disease prevention’ which is provided through a range of services including:

  • Immunisation

  • Advocating eating healthy and nutritious food

  • Promoting the benefits of regular exercise

  • Mental health

  • Cancer screening

The Australian healthcare system is split into two parts, the public health system and the private health system, each with its own separate funding and governance:

  • The public health system Medicare includes public hospitals, community-based services, and affiliated health organisations which are mostly owned and governed by state and territory governments. This system ensures that all Australians (and some overseas visitors) have access to a wide range of health and public hospital services at little or no cost. The Medicare system is funded by Australian taxpayers who pay a percentage of their income to cover the costs.

  • The private health system is a non-government system made up of private hospitals, private health insurers, specialist medical and allied health professionals such as pharmacists, physiotherapists, dieticians etc. The private health system is funded by a combination of private health insurance premiums, private health organisations, patients paying for their treatment directly, government incentives on private health insurance plus, other government and private funding.

Some specialist doctors may have agreements in place to bill through the public or private system. It’s helpful to ask the doctor and consult your health insurance fund beforehand.

National health statistics

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare's most recent report on the nation’s health (Australia’s health 2018: in brief):

  • 63% of Australians aged 18-years and over are overweight or obese.

  • More than 4 in 5 Australians aged 15-years and over rated their health as ‘excellent, ‘very good’, or ‘good’ in 2014-15.

  • In 2014-15, 47% of Australians had seen a dentist in the previous 12 months. 

  • Spending on health has grown by about 50% over the past decade, compared to a population growth of about 17%. $7,100 per person was spent on health in 2015-16 – two-thirds was funded by the government and the rest by non-government funding. 

  • Half of us have a chronic condition and these conditions are responsible for most deaths. 

  • 93% of 1 and 5-year-olds were fully immunised in 2016.

  • 80.4 years was the life expectancy for a boy born in 2016 and 84.6 years for a girl. Comparing the life expectancy from birth for boys and girls from 1881-1890 to 2014-2016, those born now can expect to live around 33-34 years longer. 

  • In 2016, the leading cause of death for males was heart disease, and dementia, and Alzheimer's disease for females. 

  • In 2015-16, Australia spent $170 billion on health. 

  • In 2015-16, $20.8 billion was spent on medicines, including prescriptions and over-the-counter medicines.

  • The median waiting time for elective surgery in a public hospital was 38 days in 2016-17.

Mental health statistics

  • Around 45% of Australians aged 16-85-years will experience mental illness in their life.

  • $9 billion was spent on mental health-related services in 2015-16.

  • Suicide is a significant public health problem all over the world. In Australia, between 2007 and 2016, the age-adjusted suicide rate for males rose from 16-18 people per 100,000 population, and from 5 to 6 per 100,000 population for females. The age-adjusted suicide rate for Indigenous people is twice the rate for non-Indigenous Australians (24 per 100,000 population compared with 12 per 100,000 population). 

  • In 2011, there were an estimated 298,000 people with dementia. This number is expected to reach around 400,000 in 2020 and 900,000 by 2050. 

  • In 2010, dementia was a leading cause of death, accounting for 6% of total deaths.

How our healthcare system compares vs. the rest of the world

We’ve looked at two comparison studies that compare how our healthcare system ranks against the rest of the world:

  1. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (as at Dec 2020)

  2. The Commonwealth Fund (as at Dec 2020)


The OECD compared 35 member countries which they consider to be developed with high-income economies, including Australia. These countries are (in alphabetical order):

  • Australia

  • Austria

  • Belgium

  • Canada

  • Chile

  • Czech Republic

  • Denmark

  • Estonia

  • Finland

  • France

  • Germany

  • Greece

  • Hungary

  • Iceland

  • Israel

  • Italy

  • Japan

  • Korea

  • Latvia

  • Lithuania

  • Luxembourg

  • Mexico

  • Netherlands

  • New Zealand

  • Norway

  • Poland

  • Portugal

  • Slovak republic

  • Slovenia

  • Spain

  • Sweden

  • Switzerland

  • Turkey

  • United Kingdom

  • United States

Where we are better, compared with other OECD countries:

  • One of the highest life expectancies for both male and female 

  • One of the highest rates of colon cancer survival

  • One of the lowest rates of smoking for people aged 15 and over

  • A higher than average number of practising nurses

Where we are average, compared with other OECD countries:

  • On average rates of dementia

  • Our health care expenditure 

  • The number of practising doctors we have

  • The number of hospital beds available

Where we need to improve, compared with other OECD countries:

  • We are ranked in the worst third for obesity amongst people aged 15-years or over

  • Our alcohol consumption is slightly above average

2. Commonwealth Fund

According to the Commonwealth Fund, who conduct a survey of 11 healthcare systems every three years, Australia was ranked no.2 behind the UK’s NHS. The 2017 survey looks at the following countries:

  1. UK

  2. Australia

  3. Netherlands

  4. Norway

  5. New Zealand

  6. Sweden

  7. Switzerland

  8. Germany

  9. Canada

  10. France

  11. United States

The New York-based organisation judges each country against the following criteria:

Core process – preventative care, safe care, coordinated care, and engagement, and patient preferences. 

Access – affordability and timeliness – how quickly can patients obtain information, make appointments, and get access to after-hours care.

Administrative efficiency – this looks at barriers to care experienced by patients and measures reports of time and effort the practitioners spend dealing with paperwork, and any disputes related to the documentation requested from insurance companies and government agencies. 

Equity -  Looks at the health care received by low-income earners compared to high-income earners, within each country. 

Healthcare outcomes – Looks at outcomes directly attributable to the health care system like, mortality rates, disease, chronic conditions etc.

Health workforce

The last review to be conducted by The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare took place in 2015. The health workforce is made up of doctors, nurses, and other professionals who provide direct patient care.

  • 102,805 medical practitioners were registered in 2015 with 88,040 employed in medicine.

  • In 2015, two of five employed medical practitioners were women.

  • The average age of nurses and midwives was 44.4 years.

  • Nine out of ten nurses and midwives were women (90.3%). 

  • Almost all midwives (98.6%) were women.

  • About one in four medical practitioners were aged 55 or over (27.2%).

  • 95.1% of all employed practitioners worked in a clinical role.

  • The average hours of work per week was 42.4 hours – 44.9 hours for men and 38.6 for women. 

  • In 2015, there were 360,008 nurses and midwives registered, with 331,015 employed. 

  • 3,210 domestic students commenced medical undergraduate training in 2015.

If you’re looking for more up-to-date statistics, take a look at The Department of Health Health Workforce Summaries.

Residents vs non-residents

It’s not only permanent residents and citizens of Australia that have access to medical assistance under our healthcare program. There are a number of countries that have entered into a “reciprocal agreement” with Australia. This is an agreement between countries that allows:

  • necessary care for illness or injury that can’t wait until you get home, and

  • any care that is covered under Medicare

Currently, the countries with who we have an agreement are:

  • Belgium

  • Finland

  • Italy – you have to be an Italian citizen but you don’t have to be living in Italy

  • Malta

  • Netherlands

  • New Zealand

  • Norway

  • Ireland

  • Slovenia

  • Sweden

  • United Kingdom

There are some exceptions to this rule, depending on what type of visa you’re on. For instance, anyone on a 406 or 410 visa isn’t covered. Students from Finland, Malta, Norway, and The Republic of Ireland are also not covered. For more information on who and what is covered under the reciprocal agreement, take a look at the human services website.

Be rewarded for your overall health

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