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This year, the National Heart Foundation of Australia is looking back at its achievements as the nation’s leading voice on heart health for six decades. Thanks to the Heart Foundation, Australia became the first country to report a decline in deaths from heart disease in the 1970s; and it was the Heart Foundation that persuaded the national telephone carrier to introduce a national free line for emergencies, Triple Zero (000). Since 1959, the Heart Foundation has funded more than $600 million (in today’s dollar value) in research. But, after many years of declining death rates from heart disease – built on successes in research, prevention and treatment, much of it driven by the Heart Foundation – challenges remain in the fight against the nation’s biggest killer, heart disease.
60 years ago, in Australia
Australia in the 1950s was a place of hope and prosperity, but it was also under serious threat from heart disease.
This threat led to an impassioned speech in 1959 by then Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, at the creation of a voluntary organisation to address the devastating impact of heart disease on the Australian community. That organisation was the National Heart Foundation of Australia – and its establishment in 1959 could not have come at a better time.
Deaths from heart disease and stroke peaked in the 1960s, causing nearly 45 per cent of Australian deaths. Tens of thousands of these deaths occurred in people under the age of 75. Over the next 20 years, incredible advances in the knowledge of cardiovascular disease were made throughout the world, and the Heart Foundation of Australia was in an ideal position to take advantage of and contribute to them.
The triumphs and the challenges
Over the past 50 years, Australia has seen a staggering 80 per cent decrease in heart disease deaths. While the falling death rates are a triumph, heart disease remains Australia’s single leading cause of death. Behind the deaths are the large numbers of Australians at risk.
More than two thirds of Australia’s adult population – almost 13 million people, or 69.1 per cent – have at least three risk factors for heart disease, and 1.4 million Australians are at high risk of having a heart attack or stroke in the next five years. Disturbingly, many are unaware of their risk.
Australia’s biggest ‘Serial Killer’
In February 2019, the 60th anniversary of the Heart Foundation, the organisation launched a bold marketing campaign in the lead up to the nation’s federal election.
The ‘Serial Killer’ campaign tapped into Australia’s fascination with ‘true crime’ by positioning heart disease as the community’s most prolific serial killer, striking 51 Australians a day. The campaign was noisy and risky, and it held decision makers to account.
The advocacy ask was a significant policy commitment; the Heart Foundation was calling for government support for the introduction of a specialised Heart Health Check – the consumer term for an Absolute Cardiovascular Disease Risk Assessment.
The campaign also encouraged Australians to understand their individual risk of heart disease by going online to use the Heart Foundation’s Heart Age Calculator – a motivational tool to raise awareness about heart disease risks. More than 650,000 Australians have used the Heart Age Calculator since its launch in February.
One week into the campaign, the Federal Government, the Federal Opposition and the Australian Greens party supported the introduction of a specific item number on Australia’s universal health care scheme for Heart Health Checks.
This achievement was the culmination of more than 10 years of persistent advocacy to convince political parties to support Medicare funding of GPs assessing patients for underlying risk factors of heart disease. A big part of this success was due to the Heart Foundation’s ability to generate evidence.
Economic modelling done by the Heart Foundation found that routine screening with Heart Health Checks for people at risk could prevent 76,500 heart attacks and strokes over the following five years, and 9,100 deaths and save $1.5 billion.
In a major win for millions of Australians at risk of heart disease, the Government committed an estimated $170 million in additional funding over five years for general practice to encourage doctors to perform Heart Health Checks for patients. The checks became available through Australia’s Medicare system on April 1, 2019.
This year was one of transformation and transition for the Heart Foundation as it changed its governance arrangements as a single, unified national organisation. The Heart Foundation’s One Heart 2018-2020 Strategy will see the organisation continues its bold plan for achieving an Australia free of heart disease through its work in prevention, support and care, and research.
1972, Heart Foundation Heart Mobile Unit
1975, A National Heart Foundation mobile education unit
1981, Heart Foundation supporters in Sydney, Australia