«Health co-operatives offer an alternative service provision model»

Adrian Watts is CEO & Managing Director of the National Health Co-op, the largest health co-operative in Australia. In this interview, he explains how co-operatives can help optimise the provision of basic services, including healthcare.

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What are the origins of the National Health Co-op?
The National Health Co-op was formed in response to a lack of General Practitioners in the northwest region of Canberra, West Belconnen, a suburban area of 20,000 people. This issue came about due to medical practices progressively closing in the area over the preceding years and an increasing shortage of General Practitioners in the city.

In the hope of addressing this issue, in September 2004 a number of community organisations and local residents convened a public meeting. Out of this meeting, a community representative committee was formed, which included a small executive committee. The executive committee was tasked with trying to find solutions to the situation. The committee conducted a ‘community needs surveys’ through which considerable publicity was achieved. The committee also lobbied the local and federal governments and businesses for support.

In December 2006, the committee re-formed as a registered co-operative, the ‘West Belconnen Health Co-operative Ltd’. Eventually capital funding was found to enable the opening of the first GP clinic in the suburb of Charnwood in January 2010.

In 2014, the name was changed to the ‘National Health Co-operative Ltd’ (NHC) in recognition that the Co-op had opened several clinics in the north and south of Canberra and was planning to further expand geographically in Canberra and beyond.

What are its future projects and aims?
The NHC’s overarching goal is to provide affordable healthcare to the communities where it operates. To help achieve this objective, the NHC is in the early stages of a national expansion which will see the establishment of clinics throughout Australia with a priority on areas that are under serviced, particularly in regional locations. The NHC expects that this will require in excess of 200 sites nationally.

What is the level of implementation of health co-operatives in Australia?
The Australian health co-operative sector is not as mature as it is in other countries with only a few health co-operatives operating. As such, presently, the level of implementation of health co-operatives in Australia is relatively small; however the continued growth of the National Health Co-op is rapidly shifting this.

Is there any agreement between health cooperatives and the Australian public health system? If so, how does this collaboration work?
The Australian public health system does not currently have any formal agreements to collaborate with health co-operatives. The Australian healthcare system allows any appropriate provider to access the Australian Government’s healthcare system, which means health co-operatives have an equal footing to provide services using this funding model.

Do you believe that health co-operatives provide a genuine alternative for the development of national health systems? Why?
The involvement of health co-operatives in national health systems provides an alternative delivery model when compared with the traditional approaches of government or private company delivery of healthcare services.

There is a huge opportunity to work within existing systems to empower individuals to own their healthcare solutions whilst delivering increased economic and social dividends to governments and thus society more broadly. The importance of these benefits become increasingly attractive as governments look to deliver better social outcomes within increasingly limited budgets.

Your organisation recently joined the International Health Co-operative Organisation, what do you think are the challenges of the international cooperative movement in the health sector?
Some of the biggest challenges facing the international co-operative movement, particularly in the health sector, is the changing demographics related to the ageing of society and the related constrained fiscal environments governments are having to deliver services under.

Both these challenges are causing much angst in governments, and society more broadly, however they ultimately deliver an opportunity for co-operatives who, by their very nature, have a strategic advantage delivering shared value. This approach to service delivery is critical to address these underlying challenges.

By increasing the utilisation of the co-operative business model, society will be able to achieve a more equitable utilisation of resources in areas that matter most to the successful function of society, such as healthcare.