Enhancing prevention in primary health care

Project title: Strengthening the role of Primary Health Networks in the prevention of chronic disease

Start date: October 2017

End date: October 2018

What is the issue?

The National Strategic Framework for Chronic Conditions acknowledges that chronic diseases are the leading cause of illness, disability and death in Australia. The framework also acknowledges that prevention, across the health system, is key to improving the health of all Australians, reducing health-related expenditure and ensuring a sustainable health system.

Primary health care has an important role in assessing, preventing and managing the key risk factors for chronic diseases, namely poor diet, physical inactivity, tobacco use, harmful alcohol consumption and obesity. Despite evidence of how to prevent chronic disease in primary health care, there are still gaps in preventive care in practice and inequities in preventive care for disadvantaged groups.

Australia’s 31 Primary Health Networks (PHNs) aim to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of health services, and improve coordination of care. Arguably, there is a role for PHNs to facilitate practice change, as well as to develop partnerships with state health services, local government and non-government organisations to commission and coordinate new preventive services and programs and to integrate clinical and population health approaches to chronic disease prevention. However, it is less clear what this looks like in practice. For example, how can effective prevention strategies be translated and applied to the structures and possibly future funding vehicles of PHNs?

How is the project addressing the issue?

This project is exploring how PHNs can improve preventive health practices in primary health care services, with a focus on how PHNs work in prevention and how it can be enhanced.

At this stage, the project team is working with stakeholders to develop an understanding of what is being undertaken/commissioned by PHNs in relation to prevention and understanding the vision/potential PHNs see for their role in prevention in the future. This includes understanding the barriers and enablers to PHNs engaging in preventive health activities using a systems approach.

Data will be collected from document reviews and interviews with PHN stakeholders, including staff from the PHN Branch at the Commonwealth Department of Health, GPs and staff at 6-10 diverse PHNs.

Relevance for practice

Through identifying how PHNs work in prevention – and how this role can be enhanced – this project aims to improve the coherence of the PHN effort in reducing the burden of chronic disease in Australia and in using resources more effectively to better prevent and manage chronic disease.

What are the expected outcomes?

The findings will be synthesised into a discussion paper, to inform development of a framework/tools for PHNs that will support a systems approach in preventive health.



This project is led by a consortium of academic and policy investigators, which in the first instance includes Professor Andrew Wilson (The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre), Dr Melissa Hobbs (The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre), Ms Elizabeth Flynn (Commonwealth Department of Health) and Dr Bernie Towler (Commonwealth Department of Health). We acknowledge the invaluable input into this project of our colleague, mentor, and above-all friend, Associate Professor Sonia Wutzke (1970–2017). The public health community is richer for having had you as one of its most passionate advocates.

This project was funded by the NHMRC, Australian Government Department of Health, NSW Ministry of Health, ACT Health and the HCF Research Foundation.


NHMRC, Australian Government Department of Health, NSW Government Health, HCF Research Foundation, ACT Government Health, hosted by Sax Institute

  • A rapid literature review (published and grey) has been completed on the role of primary health care in prevention
  • We have undertaken consultation with 16 PHNs around their current preventive activity, and have had discussions with other stakeholders, including GPs
  • A Prevention workshop took place in August 2018 at the Australian Government Department of Health in Canberra with more than 20 PHN representives and other stakeholders
  • The project has set up a community of practice (PHN Prevention Network) for PHNs to share information and hear about what other PHNs are doing around prevention
  • Poster presentation,  Primary Health Care Research Conference, August 2018, Melbourne.