Missed primary health care harms health

A new study from James Cook University links delays in visiting doctors and dentists because of affordability to long-term health problems – causing more suffering and costing government more over time.

JCU’s Associate Professor Santosh Jatrana is a Senior Principal Research Fellow at the Mount Isa Centre for Rural and Remote Health. Dr Jatrana led a study that looked at the health outcomes for more than 17,000 New Zealanders over five years.

“It might seem intuitively obvious that there’s a link between postponement of primary health care (GPs and dentists) and ill health and that this would be supported by copious published research, but in fact there is very little research on this,” said Dr Jatrana.

The researchers found delaying primary care because of cost was associated with an increased risk of poorer physical and mental health and this was especially so after deferring a visit to the dentist.

The study, published in Social Science and Medicine, found that both men’s and women’s suffered but the impact was greater on men’s health. The health impact was greater for people under 65 than for people over 65 and greater for deferring a dentist visit than a physician visit.

Dr Jatrana said providing low cost primary health care for both GP and dentist visits would reduce suffering and save government money in the long run as more expensive specialist procedures could often be avoided.

“Since the 1990s, a number of studies have provided evidence that countries with a strong primary health care system have more favourable population health outcomes, reduced health inequities across population groups, and less avoidable hospitalisation compared with those systems oriented towards specialty care,” said Dr Jatrana.

She said the New Zealand situation was comparable to Australia, but the costs of visiting a GP in New Zealand are generally higher than they are in Australia.

She said the results have several clear implications for improving the health of the population.

“Given bad effects on health were greater for deferring dentist visits than for deferring GP visits, it is important to ensure low-cost primary care is universally accessible, especially oral health care,” said Dr Jatrana.

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