Australian Journal of Primary Health Australian Journal of Primary Health Society
The issues influencing community health services and primary health care

The science of the COAG coordinated care trials

Peter W Harvey and Peter J McDonald

Australian Journal of Primary Health 9(3) 109 - 113
Published: 2003


Objectives: To explicate the organisational change agenda of the COAG coordinated care trials within the Australian health system and to illuminate the role of science in this process. Methods and Results: This article briefly outlines the COAG coordinated care trial aims and the effect of the trial as a change initiative in rural South Australia. It is proposed that although the formal trial outcomes are still not clear, the trial had significant impact upon health service delivery in some sites. The trial involved standard research methods with control and intervention groups and with key hypotheses being tested to compare the costs and service utilization profile of intervention and control groups. Formal results indicate that costs were not significantly different between intervention and control groups across all sites, but that the trial, nonetheless, had a powerful impact on the attitude and behaviours of service providers in the rural trial on Eyre Peninsula in particular. Some of the key structural changes now in place are outlined. Conclusions: The COAG trial has had many and varied impacts upon those organisations and individual providers involved with it. It is argued here that since successive initiatives had been implemented before final evaluation results were published, other agendas were served by the trial apart from those of standard scientific research and hypothesis testing. That is, the main impact of the coordinated care trial in Eyre Region at least has been change by stealth, and not through scientific research and demonstration. Implications: The COAG trials have set in train a series of structural and procedural changes in the methods of delivery and management of primary health care systems; changes that are embodied in the Enhanced Primary Care packages (EPC) and other initiatives recently introduced by the Commonwealth Government. These changes have occurred and are occurring across the system without formal evidence as to their efficacy, suggesting that other financial motives are driving these new approaches apart from the goal of improving health outcomes for consumers. Also, if science is to be used in this way to drive policy and procedural change ahead of actual outcome evidence, it is important that we examine the more subtle agendas of such research projects in future if the integrity of the scientific method is to be maintained. The occurrence of such phenomena questions the very foundation of scientific endeavour and weakens the application of scientific principles in the arena of social and political science.

© La Trobe University 2003

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