Author: John Cunningham

The economics of the COVID response

ten dollars with mask
We had just started heading back to a new kind of normal with gyms and cinemas opening and more friends able to visit. Unfortunately, Victoria has just seen an uptick in community transmissions and now we’re moving backwards towards more social isolation. No one wants that.
Without a vaccination, isolation is the best form of prevention for this virus. 

But surely we can’t sustain this? Surely this is costing us too much money, too much unemployment and the costs of lives saved just isn’t worth it? 

The trouble is, that’s never been the issue. Health and economics goes hand in hand, and it cannot simply be regarded as an “either/or” discussion. Why do I say that?
Look at Brazil where the government did little to enforce isolation and disease prevention (as of 20 Jun 20
  • 955,000 cases of COVID vs 7,391 here in Australia
  • 46,510 deaths in Brazil vs 102 deaths here
  • 222 deaths per million in Brazil vs 4.1 per million here
  • 0.174% GDP contraction in Brazil vs 0.011% here – we’re 15 times financially less worse off here
Sweden also makes a miserable comparison
  • 5,053 deaths vs 102 deaths here
  • 496 deaths per million vs 4.1 in Australia
  • case fatality rate of 9% vs 1.4%
  • 0.21% GDP contraction vs 0.011% here – we’re 15 times financially less worse off here
In countries where there have been large outbreaks of COVID, then both the health AND the economic consequences were worse. They go hand-in-hand. Sick people aren’t productive, don’t spend money and don’t support employment.
Like you, I find it hard to return to a higher state of isolation, but at least now I know we’re not only saving lives, but also saving jobs.

My Health Record

Have you got up to speed yet on My Health Record?

As long as you didn’t choose to opt-out of the new e-health record system, by now you will have, as a minimum, the shell of your very own e-health record. Protected by the strictest privacy legislation and electronic security measures, it is a way of virtually carrying your health records with you, without the bulk.

At this practice, our software is now configured to access your health records and to upload information to it. We feel it’s a useful service we can offer, but only if you want us to. We will only upload documents if you specifically ask us to, and will only access your record if you give us consent (except in cases of emergency). Please be aware though that by default, all blood test and radiology results are uploaded to your health record if you have one, unless you tick the box that states you don’t want them to. That’s not just for orders from this practice, but from any Australian health practitioner.

On the MyGov website, you can also access your own records, edit them if you want, change your privacy settings and see a list of all the times your record has been accessed.

Read about the system more here, and when you visit our practice, let us know your thoughts.

Why health insurance is a game with loaded dice


The government’s looming private health insurance reforms are a slick marketing gimmick. It will still mean patients making wagers on their future health.

Next April will see the rollout of Federal Government reforms of the private health insurance sector — an attempt to end the bamboozlement of thousands of customers by big corporations, which often sell junk policies worth less than the paper they are printed on.

The government’s plan is a simple one: insurers will be required to code their wares — gold, silver, bronze and basic — depending on what healthcare the policy covers. These tiers are meant to make it easier for customers to know exactly what they are buying before, rather than after, they sign on the dotted line.

In truth, this is nothing more than a marketing gimmick.

During the government’s own consultations, it admitted that consumers found health insurance complex, policies difficult to compare and they did not understand the business of exclusions. As I see it, when a patient discovers that they are not covered for a procedure that will improve their health, their quality of life and longevity, it is a failure in the duty of care of their insurance company to properly attend to their client rather than the fault of the patient. Is it any wonder then that exclusions are a major source of complaints about health insurance? But what are these looming reforms based upon? You guessed it — exclusions. The new categories are defined by their exclusions. They are defined by what they minimally cover.

For instance, ‘basic’ policies (what more honest marketing would dub ‘junk’ policies) only have to include, as a minimum, rehabilitation, hospital psychiatric services and palliative care. The twist is that the system allows patients to pay more to have less excluded versions. In practice, you could have a silver policy, plus joint replacement, plus cataracts, or a bronze policy, plus dental surgery. It still sounds confusing. Basing insurance policies on exclusions also has the financial effect of focusing the health risks of a subset of the population on to that same subset. Rather than spreading the load, the ever-expanding older population will need to pay their own way, while the healthier will pay less. Given the ageing population, this is quite unsustainable.

But there is an even more fundamental problem with exclusion- based policy categorisations. We’re forced to make a guess based upon nothing more than our intuition about what to exclude from our cover. Sadly, we are often wrong. Young people may be convinced of their invincibility and take out basic or bronze cover but will later find themselves in need of a hip replacement, cataract surgery or spinal reconstruction and have to make do on the public waiting list. Not that that’s a bad thing, but when you’ve been paying for insurance, it hardly seems fair that you also have been excluded from private care by that same policy.

In essence, rather than being insured for the costs of our illness and having peace of mind, we are being made to gamble on our health.

When faced with these exclusions first-hand, is it any wonder that patients complain and leave private health altogether? A more equitable and fairer system would be to abolish exclusion- based criteria all together and have all policies cover all conditions. All clients, from young to old, would be subsidising all the health needs of all the others, spreading the risk and making health insurance immeasurably more simple to understand. This would remove the secondary gamble we make with our health when we decide on exclusions to not pay for. If a young person with a silver policy suddenly needed dialysis, for example, they wouldn’t be disappointed to discover they were not covered for it.

Conversations could then be had about effectiveness, rather than costs alone. Patients would pay their insurance premiums to have their treatment in a timely manner with the hospital and the doctor of their choosing, without the heavy cloud of exclusions hanging over their heads. Policies would be simple to understand and could even be differentiated on the basis of a simple excess scheme. As happens in other forms of insurance, cheaper policies would have a larger excess and more expensive policies less.

The government could even encourage health savings accounts specifically to cover these excesses and make those accounts tax free. If they have savings to even partly cover excesses, I imagine patients would be far more accepting if they then had to dig into their pockets. You wouldn’t insure your car’s front panels but not its rear panels, and yet we have come to accept exclusions as the health insurance policy norm.

Health insurance needs a transformation, rather than the paltry reformation currently being offered. To combat the march of people declining to take out insurance and loading up the public health system, we need to remove the health gamble of exclusions that we have come to accept.

To re-establish the confidence that the public has lost in private health insurance, they need to be confident that they are covered, rather than scared that they’re not.

As published in Medical Observer 5 Oct 18

Back pain, spinal surgery and where we’ve got it wrong.

Spinal surgery remains a powerful tool when used judiciously

The science of spinal surgery is much more advanced than biased commentators would like to admit, writes orthopaedic surgeon John Cunningham. As published today in Medical Observer:

In the last few weeks we’ve been bombarded with reports of what some consider to be the best treatments for back pain, and almost every time someone has mentioned spinal surgery, it has been in disparaging terms.

Apparently, the gloves are off when it comes to my profession, with an Australian vascualar surgeon who was commenting on a Lancet study that said back pain was often mistreated, claiming in the media last month that it was “almost certain” the medical industry influenced surgical decisions.

Armchair critics abound, it appears.

The truth is that the science of spinal surgery is much more advanced than biased commentators would like to admit.

Here I will declare my bias in that I only ever offer patients operations when the best available evidence supports that decision, with a diagnosis established by taking a careful history, a thorough examination and after assessing the results of judiciously ordered investigations and interventions.

That offer takes into account the patient’s wishes, their comorbidities, their functional status, psychological status and everything else that makes up an individual.

Spinal surgery is not easy, it’s not straightforward, and it’s notoriously difficult to generalise about. Experienced spinal surgeons do not, however, practice in a cowboy fashion.

The current best practice is that for trauma, both cervical and thoracolumbar, scoliosis and tumours we follow guidelines and treatment algorithms that are supported by solid evidence.

For the degenerative conditions that are currently being thrust before us, the best available studies are the SPORT trials. They show that people with degenerative spondylolisthesis, disc herniations and spinal canal stenosis who had surgery did better functionally than those who were managed non-operatively.

I’m not saying that surgery is for everyone, but that’s what the best available evidence tells us – warts and all.

The harsh reality is that back pain is a symptom and always has been a symptom. It has only been in recent times that it has become a diagnosis in the eyes of some.

By simplifying the complaints of many hundreds of thousands of patients a year to the umbrella term ‘back pain’, and vigorously promoting recipe medicine, many patients with surgically correctable pathology could miss out on a cure.

Choosing Wisely Australia, via the Faculty of Pain Medicine of the Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists (ANZCA), quite rightly stated that surgery was not recommended for uncomplicated axial chronic low back pain (UACLBP).

In other words, when you have back pain that is not due to a structural defect, only in the axial spine, not claudicant, and not radicular, then surgery is not recommended. I don’t disagree.

However, the symptoms that accompany surgically treatable conditions are often confused with or dismissed as UACLBP.

Symptoms such as neurogenic claudication, sciatica, and the pain of tumours and sagittal imbalance are all concepts that any back physician should be familiar with, and be confident to differentiate from UACLBP. In spine “everything is in the history.”

If we want to do the best for our patients (and we do) then discussing back pain and surgery in the same paragraph makes a mockery of both the diagnosis and the treatment.

By losing the nuance and the subtlety of the causes of pain of spinal origin, and grouping all under the umbrella of ‘back pain’ we are doing patients and ourselves a disservice.

Spinal surgery can and is a very powerful tool that can help patients significantly, often restoring their level of function dramatically equivalent to that restoration commonly following hip and knee replacement.1

We’re all here to help our patients and it’s up to each of us to know our limitations and also our strengths.

We know spinal surgery works when applied judiciously, intelligently, with precision, with skill, and with heart.


1. Mokhtar SA, McCombe PF, Williamson OD, Morgan MK, Sears WR. Health related quality of life: A comparison of outcomes following lumbar fusion for degenerative spondylolisthesis with large joint replacement surgery and population norms [Journal Article] Spine J. 2010 Apr;10(4):306-12.

2018 Wings For Life World Run – Three months to go!

Most of you would know that I have to deal with many people every year who have suffered spinal trauma, and some who have suffered a cord injury. Many of those have become the most inspirational people I have ever met. But did you know you can help them directly? The Wings For Life World Run is an annual fun run to raise money for spinal cord injury research via the Research Foundation. As a participant it’s an extraordinary event where the finish line is whenever, or should I say wherever, the catcher cars catch you. It is run simultaneously all across the globe so the start time in Melbourne is 9pm, usually on what feels like the chilliest night of the year. You soon heat up though as the kilometres start to tick over!

The other wonderful thing about the race is that all the costs are covered by company donations, with Red Bull being the major supporter. That means that 100% of your donation or entry fee goes directly to spinal cord research. How good is that?

So, who’s going to come running with me? Or help with fundraising? Or donate?

Wings for Life #WorldRun

Last night I again completed the Wings for Life #WorldRun, a unique simultaneous international “fun run” to raise money for spinal cord research. Instead of a fixed finish line, a chaser car follows the pack and gradually passes the runners, ending their race. It’s an interesting way to approach a run and also raises money for a great cause, obviously close to my heart. A bit like putting your money where your mouth is, or in my case, my legs.

I must say last night’s rain and cold was helping no one! Last year I made 13km; this year only a smidge over 10km. Two of my registrars also took part and did 16 and 21km! I’m taking the option of claiming “old age” compared to them, as well as any other excuse I can think of…

One hundred percent of all donations go to research, with Red Bull and the other sponsors picking up the cost of staging the event. If you’d like to donate, please go to this page to do so. I don’t need to tell you it’s a worthy cause again, do I?

All the best,



What’s an orthopod like you doing in a joint like this?

I was honoured this year to be awarded the Order of Australia Medal for service to medicine, and to the promotion of immunisation. The most common question I’ve been asked, however, is how or why an orthopaedic surgeon became so interested and involved in immunisation. As many of you would know, I have several degrees to my name, and the one that sparked my interest in this field was the Masters of Clinical Epidemiology. For those of you who know what epidemiology is, please stop yawning. For those of you that don’t, it’s the study of how medical research is carried out, and how it is analysed and conclusions reported. You may now commence yawning.

The thing is, the vaccination rates in Australia have been steady for many years, somewhat lower than the ideal 95%, and also alarmingly low (<50%) in some communities. Despite the best efforts of professional vaccination researchers, nothing seemed to have an effect on this rate. Children were suffering and in some cases dying because they were not vaccinated, or worse, because the people around them were not.

Enter Meryl Dorey and the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN). Meryl sold a message of false concern for children’ health, and often promoted herself as an “expert” in vaccination. Far from it, she and her ilk would misquote research, use unlikely stories of “vaccination damage” and, of course promote, the discredited idea that vaccination was responsible for a whole range of diseases. This last idea has been proven false more times than I’ve had hot dinners. She even suggested that “battered baby” syndrome was due to immunisations and not domestic violence. The sad truth is that Meryl and people like her spread misinformation and fear to parents who often didn’t know any better.

This all came to a head about five years ago when she made it onto national television at the same time as a real immunisation expert, as well as the parents of a child who had died of whooping cough (she was too young to be immunised). A Facebook group, Stop the AVN, was formed and shortly afterwards I joined it. The rest, as they say, is history. We lobbied, we cajoled, we argued and we lobbied some more. We exposed the media to the lies the AVN spread and effectively had it banished from the news. No longer was Meryl an “expert” but now she was an “anti-vaxxer”. The membership plummeted, the income fell, and the AVN is now only a shadow of it’s former self.

Of course, others have tried to step into the breach and get a slice of the money and fame, but for a couple of years now they have been duly recognised by the mainstream as charlatans, liars and not people whose words can be trusted. Judy Wilyman, who was awarded a PhD by the University of Wollongong, has been widely criticised for the content of her thesis, and for writing a document based on false assumptions about vaccination. It was never examined by anyone with real expertise in immunisation. My thoughts can be read in an opinion piece in the Australian, which you can read here. She is still emailing myself, journalists and UoW academics demanding that someone pay her attention.

Sadly for her, no one has.

But what of the positive side? Beginning with a newspaper campaign called “No Jab No Play” restricting day care to immunised children, the Federal Government took the scheme one level further and implemented “No Jab No Pay”, closing a loophole that vaccination refusers were using to get government payments that they were not entitled to. As a result, vaccination rates have risen more than they have in ten years because there’s less parents refusing vaccination, but also because those who found it difficult to get their children vaccinated are now much more motivated to do so.

Vaccination has finally been given the priority it deserves. Denialists, liars, fear mongers and rogues have been put in their place. Children are safer now than they were a year ago.

And we will count the number of lives saved by the small graves that will not need to be dug.


Metal or PEEK? Pass me the Cellular Titanium…

To many of you having a spinal fusion, you may not be aware of the enormous biomedical engineering research and design effort that goes into the every implant used. Titanium and its alloys are metals which have a long track record of being biocompatible. We use titanium throughout the skeleton for trauma, dentists use it for implants, and of course we use it for the screws and rods for fusions.

For reasons that may be historic, however, for many years we’ve been using PEEK – a form of plastic – in the interbody space where the disc is removed. By itself it does not cause any artefact when X-rayed, and has some other theoretical advantages too. Some doubt has been cast though on the effectiveness of PEEK and whether or not it may inhibit bone formation – the exact opposite of what we want to create a fusion.

I’ve been very fortunate this year to have been involved with a Dutch/German company called EIT who asked me to help design their interbody cages for PLIF. The cages are made using a 3D printing technique called Selective Laser Melting and then treated with a process that roughens the surface making it more attractive for osteoblasts, and that’s what you want to make a fusion. You can see an explanatory video here.

The new cages are safe to use, don’t require any changes to surgical technique, and have minimal impact on post operative imaging, which is often a concern with solid metal implants. As you can see below, even with PEEK cages below, there is significant “noise” from the tantalum markers inserted into the PEEK. The EIT titanium cage inserted at the level above though has none of this noise and it’s relatively east to see the fusion progressing.

This is a cage that bone grows towards, and through, and I believe represents the next step in fusion technology.I’m now using EIT titanium cages for PLIF, TLIF and ACDF procedures, and have been very satisfied with the results.


Declaration: I do not receive any royalties from EIT but obviously have a research and development agreement with them.

Towards faster, secure communication

Last month in the rooms we introduced a new communication method with GP’s. It’s called “Argus“, and it is a secure electronic communication system that we now use to write to GP’s about their patients. In our practice we’re focussed on GP’s being the coordinators of their patient’s care, and so regular and rapid delivery of information is paramount.

Argus allows us to communicate almost instantaneously with your local doctor. We write about 50 letter as a week, and whilst that may not sound like many, Argus is a tremendous time saver. Previously, every letter was typed, printed, folded inside an envelope and a stamp put on it, and then taken to the letter box, usually in batches. Then there would then be a 2-3 day delay before they were delivered, opened, and given to your GP. Often the letters are scanned, and then put in the bin. What a waste of time, money and paper!

What happens from now is that the moment a letter is typed we send it electronically to your GP, and in most cases it appears almost instantaneously in your notes. No wasted paper, no time delays, and it’s stored electronically in your file free from scanning or filing errors. Often my report will get to your doctor before you do!

Argus is secure. It satisfies the National Secure Message Delivery standard, and is compliant with Australian eHealth. I wouldn’t use it if it wasn’t. It’s probably more secure than mail. Argus was recently bought by Telstra Health, and is now installed and running smoothly in our rooms.

If you want to ensure that I can communicate with your GP as efficiently as possible, please ask your GP to send your referral to me via Argus ( That way all future correspondence will be via this method. Otherwise, ask your GP to put their Argus address in your referral and I’ll add them to my address book. If they don’t have Argus, maybe you could ask them to consider installing it or one of the alternatives.

It’s the way of the future.


We’re moving!

So, not the most exciting post you’ve ever read, but you’ll be wishing you remembered it when I don’t answer the door next year! From 1 January 2015, I’m packing up my rooms and moving to:

Epworth Medical Centre
Suite 2.7
173 Lennox St
Richmond VIC 3121

Phone and fax numbers will not change – the Telstra people promise.

As well, from February 2015, we will also be offering appointments on Monday mornings at:

Medical Specialists on Collins
Level 4
250 Collins Street
Melbourne VIC 3000