“We've got a lot of other things going on in our world that are affecting our general sense of wellbeing and, therefore, our health as well because they're inter-related.”—Dr Jeannie Yoo, Chief Medical Officer, Australian Unity
- The latest results from the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index show there’s been a decline in our satisfaction with our health, with the survey recording the lowest-ever levels of satisfaction.
- The results reflect our worsening physical health, as well as increased levels of mental distress.
- Broader external challenges, such as cost-of-living pressures, may also have an impact on our satisfaction with our health.
In March 2020, the Australian government declared a human biosecurity emergency as it scrambled to control the outbreak of COVID-19. Borders were slammed shut, returning residents were forced into quarantine hotels, and social-distancing rules were enforced ahead of some of the world’s toughest lockdowns. It was a health crisis that gripped our nation on a truly unprecedented scale.
And yet, despite all this, Australian Unity Wellbeing Index research conducted in 2020 by Deakin University showed that Australians’ satisfaction with their health was particularly high during those early months of the pandemic.
Two years on, when the worst of the pandemic is supposedly behind us, this health satisfaction rate fell to the lowest levels recorded in 21 years. So what’s caused this unexpected dip and why do Australians now have an increasingly gloomy outlook when it comes to their health?
Timing may play a role in the results. Lead researcher Dr Kate Lycett, from Deakin University's School of Psychology, points to the fact that the most recent Australian Unity Wellbeing Index survey took place in May and June 2022, when COVID was raging and the country was also battling a flu epidemic. “At the time, there actually was a lot of illness in the community,” she concedes.
But what may have exacerbated this are medical workforce issues that became more glaring when we entered “COVID-normal".
“I think during the pandemic in 2020, Australians felt quite protected,” she says.
“We had some of the strictest lockdowns in the world and people felt like that was protecting our health. Since we've come out of the lockdowns, we know that it's been challenging to get into hospitals due to general staff shortages, and that people are even struggling to get into GPs.
"I think all of that probably adds to people feeling vulnerable about their satisfaction with their health.”
The unfortunate reality of worsening health
For Dr Jeannie Yoo, Chief Medical Officer at Australian Unity, the plummeting satisfaction levels are primarily a reflection of the unfortunate reality. In short, we’re less satisfied with our health because it's actually worse.
“Objectively speaking, as a community, our mental health and our physical health are not as good in these latter stages of the pandemic, as they were prior,” she says. “I do think our satisfaction with health reflects what's going on in the community.”
When it comes to our physical health, Jeannie points to data from the Actuaries Institute that showed that in 2022 there were more than 20,000 more deaths in Australia than would’ve been expected if the pandemic had not happened. “Just over half of those deaths could be attributed directly to COVID-19 infection, while in about 15 percent, COVID-19 was a contributing factor,” says Jeannie says.
In addition, more deaths were also recorded from cancer, cerebrovascular disease and diabetes. Some of those, Jeannie notes, may have stemmed from delays in receiving routine care during the pandemic, which resulted in missed opportunities to tackle medical problems. “People may not have been accessing services for diagnosis or treatment in as timely a way. Therefore, we're seeing the negative impact of that through increasing deaths, potentially, in these different areas.”
The mental health epidemic
The results of the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index also record a worrying spike in mental health issues, with feelings of depression, anxiety and stress all trending conspicuously higher in 2022 compared to the start of the pandemic.
Jeannie suggests the spike in rates, while exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, reflects a very real need for help.
“There's an informative longitudinal study that was carried out by the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods looking at mental health,” she says. “What they found is that Australians certainly experienced high levels of psychological distress during the pandemic but, as of April 2022, they remained higher than they were in 2017. In other words, our overall levels of psychological distress have remained higher.”
The broader context
Right now, Australia faces a host of challenges on multiple fronts, with real concerns about the cost of living, climate change and geopolitical instability. Jeannie points to the impact that these broader concerns can have on our perception of our health.
“We've got a lot of other things going on in our world that are affecting our general sense of wellbeing and, therefore, our health as well because they're inter-related,” Jeannie says. “As a community, we're moving into a period of significant uncertainty on the back of a very difficult few years dominated by the pandemic.
"With that combination, it's no surprise to me that people's satisfaction with their health might be lower. It's a result of the pandemic, but also, I think, because of the difficulties and the challenges we're now facing as a community.”
Disclaimer: Information provided in this article is of a general nature. Australian Unity accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of any of the opinions, advice, representations or information contained in this publication. Readers should rely on their own advice and enquiries in making decisions affecting their own health, wellbeing or interest. Interviewee titles and employer are cited as at the time of interview and may have changed since publication.