A federal government decision to defund a not-for-profit organisation that has been educating consumers about safe healthcare and medicines for more than two decades will leave people susceptible to medical misinformation and harm, experts say.
Prior to the federal election in May, the former government planned a complete cut to funding for NPS MedicineWise. Health and medical groups lobbied Labor during the election campaign to review the decision. After being elected, the government commissioned audit firm Deloitte to conduct a rapid review into the decision. After receiving Deloitte’s advice, it upheld the cut.
NPS MedicineWise’s commonwealth funding amounted to more than $25m in the 2021/22 budget.
In a statement, NPS MedicineWise said the decision was “catastrophic”. The chair of NPS, Dr Andrew Knight, said the organisation had “no choice” but to cease operations after 31 December.
“We believe it will prove to be a poor decision, and will make the safe and wise use of medicines in Australia much harder to achieve,” he said.
The Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care (ACSQHC) will absorb some of NPS MedicineWise’s functions, while other services will be put out to tender.
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But Dr Barbara Mintzes, an associate professor with the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre and School of Pharmacy said while the commission “… does excellent work setting guidelines for care in public hospitals, it has little expertise in the type of evidence-based behaviour change strategies in primary care that NPS has perfected”.
“NPS MedicineWise’s work leads to a net savings in drug, medical services and hospitalisation costs – with an estimated $1.1bn saved over the last 20 years – more savings than it costs to fund it,” Prof Mintzes said.
“This is not taking into account suffering from harmful medicine use prevented. It’s also unclear what will be dropped and how much will go out for tender – the Consumer Medicines Information Line, a phone line people could call about their own medicines – is already out for tender.”
The director of the Institute for Evidence-Based Healthcare, Prof Paul Glasziou, said the trust that NPS had with GPs “will not be easily or quickly replaced”.
“That puts some of the quality usage programs in jeopardy, as well as being a morale blow for GPs,” he said.
Prof Glasziou is also chief investigator with the Australian-New Zealand General Practice Respiratory Infections Network. Its members wrote a letter to the health minister, Mark Butler, urging him to reconsider the funding cut. The letter describes how NPS educates the public and clinicians about overuse of antibiotics to avoid the rising threat of antimicrobial resistance.
“The work by NPS has been important to contain the growth in overuse, but needs to be strengthened rather than cut,” members wrote.
Butler did not respond to a request for comment, but referred Guardian Australia’s questions to the federal health department.
A department spokesperson said ACSQHC “is very well-positioned to deliver the program in future, as it is already responsible for leading quality and safety in healthcare”.
The director of the University of Sydney’s Health Literacy Lab, Prof Kirsten McCaffery, said she and her colleagues had also written to the minister asking him to reconsider and said the decision to uphold the funding cuts was “very disappointing”.
“My research often involves interviewing and surveying patients about their healthcare and understanding the impact on their lives when healthcare or medicines are delivered inappropriately,” Prof McCaffery said.
“This can have devastating and life changing consequences for patients. For example: an unnecessary scan could lead to unnecessary surgery, or the wrong medicine or dose could lead to dizziness, a fall and hospitalisation. NPS worked to prevent these things from happening, and I fear we will be worse off without it.”