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The Australian Healthcare System Explained

Published on
May 2, 2024

Medical school admission is incredibly competitive. This is reasonable - after all there are many incentives that attract students to the prospect of becoming a doctor. Given the high ethical standard of the profession, it is critically important to the medical community that the ‘perks’ of being a doctor are not confused with the moral priorities of the workforce. 

For example, a student that is primarily interested in the financial or political aspect of the medical profession is an inappropriate candidate for medical school

The values that are sought after by the medical community are fairly straightforward. These are hard work, dedication, and intelligence. Understandably, these are very abstract concepts. It is not immediately obvious how a medical school can evaluate candidates based on these criteria given that so many applicants are already outstanding individuals. 

To level the playing field, medical schools test the commitment of candidates by evaluating their understanding of the Australian healthcare system. Knowledge of this system demonstrates that you are dedicated enough to the pursuit of medical studies that you have previously set aside time to prepare yourself for your future work.

Our healthcare system is complicated, and having an understanding of the different elements at play also proves your intelligence. Finally, knowledge of where doctors and medical students fit into the healthcare service is invaluable to working as a member of the Australian medical community. This latter point is therefore appreciated by the doctors often involved in med school admission committees.

Australian Healthcare System Structure 

Starting at the beginning, we have to discuss the core components of the Australian Healthcare System. The core components are actually the fundamental aspects of healthcare anywhere in the world. To list them briefly, the consist of:

  • Medical Services
  • Public Hospitals 
  • Medicines

Now let’s go through these components individually.

Medical Services

Medical services describe the aspects of healthcare that maintain public wellbeing in the community. The most basic example of such a service would be your local General Practitioner, or GP for short. Your GP is your first stop in the healthcare journey. Their role is to assess your signs and symptoms, and then prescribe an initial management.

This initial management could be conservative (i.e. watching and waiting), it could involve prescribing medication, or your care could be transferred to another specialist. These local specialist clinics could be medical in nature, such a dermatologist or a cardiologist. Alternatively, they could belong to allied health specialities, such as psychologists or physiotherapists. 

Public Hospitals

Sometimes, the scope of the medical problem is so large, or so urgent, that it cannot be managed with the equipment and staff present in the community. For example, an inflamed appendix simply cannot be safely removed at your local family doctor’s office. For such a procedure to go ahead, it is necessary to assemble a team of trained specialists. This team includes surgery, anesthetics, and nursing staff. This is where the second facet of the Australian healthcare system comes into play. A hospital is essentially a multidisciplinary health centre that specialises in acute (urgent) and complex medical emergencies.


The third and final component of Australian healthcare are the medicines. Providing medicine to Australian citizens is a non-trivial matter. First, these products have to be approved by the TGA - the Therapeutic Goods Administration. This confirms that the medications are safe to use in humans, and are effective for a particular medical condition. 

The second aspect of medicine in healthcare is the PBS. The PBS or the Pharmaceutical Benefit Scheme is a government subsidy system that allows certain prescriptions to be cheaper, or even free, for the consumer. For example, if you go to your GP with a chest infection and you are prescribed medication, you can often pick it up at the pharmacy for free! This is not the case with all medications - some are just cheaper, and others may not be included in the PBS lists altogether. Nevertheless, the great majority of lifesaving medication, from antibiotics to epipens and insulin, is made accessible to the Australian population through this system.

The Australian Healthcare Card

Many of you reading this will be familiar with the green Australian healthcare card. This is the Medicare card. All of the benefits that we have listed in the previous section, are available to Australians through a system known as medicare. This is basically the umbrella term for the government funded Australian healthcare system. 

This card is available to all Australian citizens and permanent residents over the age of 15. Before this age, you are usually listed on your parents’ card. When you attend a doctor, hospital, or allied health practitioner you will be asked for this card. This way, you can be identified as an eligible recipient of medicare, and rather than sending the bill for their services to you, the health practitioner can bill the government instead! This eliminates the cost barrier of many important healthcare interventions.

Private Health Services In Australia

While Medicare, which is the public healthcare system, is the backbone of basic healthcare, the Australian Healthcare System also relies on the private sector. This private sector is a major reason for our health system’s success.  

You may be familiar with companies such as BUPA or Australian Unity from the ads they run online, or on TV. These companies allow for a citizen to pay optional, regular payments, and in turn, access the private healthcare system at a discounted rate.

But why would anyone want to access private healthcare if public healthcare is free?

The answer to this is multifactorial. Here are just a few example cases:

Firstly, the government has very limited resources, and cannot possibly subsidise every aspect of healthcare. For example, if you are keenly interested in monitoring your cholesterol levels multiple times a year, this may be important to you, but not always important from your doctor’s perspective. In this instance you are not limited in your access to healthcare just because the government is unwilling to subsidise your tests.

Another example of private healthcare are non-urgent procedures. If you need a minor and non-urgent operation, and are willing to pay out of pocket for private healthcare, you can go to a private hospital and receive the healthcare without spending time on a public healthcare waitlist. 

In short, private healthcare is critically important for relieving the stress placed on medicare. This allows the government funding to be allocated to the most critically ill and vulnerable patients, who would often benefit from it the most. 

What Are The Biggest Health Problems In Australia?

No discussion of the Australian healthcare system would be complete, without an analysis of its strengths and weaknesses. We have already considered the breadth of healthcare available to Australians, as well as the advantages of a combined private/public system. Now, it is important for us to consider the challenges which this system is facing.

Aging Population

In many ways, the Australian healthcare system is a victim of its own success. The effectiveness and accessibility of the care provided in this country has left citizens with some of the longest life expectancies on the planet. With longer life expectancy however, comes great healthcare costs. These costs involve much more than simply medicines and doctors visits that increase with age.

As a person ages, they are much more likely to encounter severe diseases such as cancer, and neurodegenerative disease. The costs associated with treating individuals with such diseases, as well as supporting them through the possible frailty of old age are significant. As our population ages further, we must continue working towards being able to provide these excellent services in a sustainable fashion.  

Increase Rates of Chronic Disease 

One of the most critically dangerous epidemics facing Australia has long been that of obesity. There is a large contingent of Australian citizens which has difficulty maintaining a healthy lifestyle. This is exacerbated by the high caloric content of modern meals and our sedentary lifestyles. 

Obesity is just one example of the chronic ‘lifestyle’ diseases that burden our healthcare system. As doctors improve treatments for asthma, bowel disease, and epilepsy, these conditions become chronic rather than terminal. This is excellent news for the community, yet is still an economic and logistical challenge for the hospitals and clinics, which must continue to provide care for a growing number of individuals. 

Cost of Medical Research and Innovation

Many people take the cost of medical developments and research for granted. On average, it takes at least ten years for a novel drug to reach the medical workplace. Even longer for this drug to be accepted by doctors as they familiarise themselves with its uses. Furthermore, it takes anywhere between 1.3 to 2.6 billion dollars in research fees to pay the scientists, pharmacists and institutions for developing this technology.

Finally, we must also consider that 96% of all new drugs fail these trials, and therefore the billions of dollars spent on this development are often wasted. It seems that advancing medical technology is a complex and expensive business. 

Where To Next?

The Australian Healthcare system has many factors to be considered and acknowledged before you begin to understand its full potential.

Having discussed the structure and functions of the Australian healthcare system, here’s a list of informative articles we have worked on to make your life easier to set foot into your medical journey.

Besides, we also have some educational pieces that focuses purely on addressing some issues or concerns you may encounter in your medical school application process:

  1. Medical interviews during Covid-19
  2. How to show active listening skills during medical interviews?
  3. What happens if you fail your medical school interview?