NSW Government NSW Health
South Eastern Sydney Local Health District
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History of Public Health in Australia

Public Health Units were set up throughout NSW from 1990 onwards to deal with issues relating to protecting and monitoring the health of the population at a local level.

Did you know that the first public health initiatives in Australia were initiated in 1788 in the south eastern area of Sydney?

Letter to Captain Arthur Phillip from Dr John White, Surgeon, First Fleet

Sydney Cove, Port Jackson
July the 4th, 1788

Sir,

Among the troops, their wives and children, as well as among the convicts who have been ill, the want of necessities to aid the operation of medicine has been most materially and sensibly felt. My duty leads me to mention this circumstance to your Excellency in order that you may use all means for their procurement as may seem most expedient.

For your Excellency's information I have taken the liberty to insert the articles in the margin which come under the head of necessaries, to which I beg leave to add blankets and sheets for the hospital, none of which are in the colony, altho' they are essential and absolutely necessary. The want of them makes that observance and attention to cleanliness (a circumstance which among sick persons cannot be too much inculcated or attended to), utterly impossible. With respect to necessaries, our situation here, constantly living on salt provisions without any possibility of a change, makes them more necessary than perhaps in any other quarter of the globe. I have the honour to be, with respect, Sir, your Excellency's most obedient and very humble servant,

John White, Surgeon

The History of Public Health in NSW

The arrival of Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet in Sydney Cove, Port Jackson in 1788, and the subsequent establishment of the colony of New South Wales, began the history of the NSW public hospital system. Several medical staff arrived with the First Fleet, among them Dr John White, Ship's Surgeon and author of the above letter. The Colonial Medical Service was soon established to provide basic medical care for the convicts and others. A temporary hospital was constructed at Sydney Cove, with many convicts being housed in tents in the hospital grounds. The arrival of the Second Fleet showed the inadequacy of this arrangement, as the extremely harsh conditions exacted a high death toll. Construction soon began on more permanent convict hospitals, at Windsor, Bathurst, Liverpool and Goulburn in the early 1800's. Sydney Hospital was finally opened in 1816.

These convict hospitals were progressively handed over to civilian control, as the transportation of convicts to NSW ceased in 1841. Some financial assistance was given by the government, although little control was exercised over their operations.

It wasn't until the 1850's that public health administration commenced in NSW. The main concerns at this time were infectious diseases and sanitation - two issues still of great importance to public health today.

In 1881, the first NSW Board of Health was established as a response to the smallpox epidemic under the provisions of the Infectious Diseases Supervision Act. The aim was to provide a "Board of Advice to assist in preventing the spread of small pox". It was decided that the Board of Health would comprise of at least six members, appointed by the Governor.

The first Public Health Act was introduced in NSW in 1896 and was responsible for increasing and clarifying the powers of the Board. The revised Public Health Act of 1902 consolidated existing Acts and made provision for an increase in the number of Board of Health members from six to ten, four of which had to be legally qualified medical practitioners.

Whilst the Board of Health was a statutory body, local authorities were required to provide quarterly written reports detailing both public health and the administration of the Public Health Act within their district.

In April 1904 a Department of Public Health was established, with the Board of Health and the Health Officer of Port Jackson being brought under the control of the Colonial Secretary's Department.

Subsequent amending acts to the Public Health Act of 1902 further strengthened the powers of the Board. The Board became responsible for the supervision of the various public health acts, including the Abattoir Act of 1850, Quarantine Acts, Infectious Diseases Supervision Act of 1881, Dairies Supervision Act of 1886, the Leprosy Act of 1890, the Noxious Trades and Cattle Slaughtering Act of 1894, the Pure Food Act of 1908, the Private Hospitals Act of 1908 and the Diseased Animals and Meat Act of 1902.

A further milestone in the history of public health services was the establishment of the 1929 Public Hospitals Act. For the first time there was Government control and regulation of quality assurance in hospitals. The Act also established the Hospitals' Commission of NSW which operated separately from the Board of Health. They were also responsible for inquiring into the administration and management of hospitals, as well as reporting on conditions relating to their maintenance, equipment, management and repair. The Commission inspected hospitals on a yearly basis and reported to the Minister on their financial needs.

In 1973 the NSW Health Commission was established, which brought together psychiatric hospitals, community health services and public health programs under the same body as that responsible for public hospitals. The Board of Health was responsible for reporting to the Health Commission on matters relating to public health including infectious diseases and food standards. This Board of Health was abolished in 1974 and the duties distributed to other committees.

At the same time, the administration of health was decentralised, with several regional offices being established throughout the state. In 1982 the NSW Department of Health was established under the Health Administration Act with the aim of simplifying the organisational structure to be able to better meet the changing needs of the community.

In 1986 Area Health Boards were first established in the Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong regions of the State, replacing a large number of individual hospital boards.

During the 1990s several changes were made, including the amalgamation of the Eastern Sydney and Southern Sydney Area Health Services in 1995 (reducing the number of metropolitan Area Health Services to ten) and the formation of eight Rural Health Services to replace the 23 District Health Services.

The Health Services Act came into effect on 1 July 1997, replacing the Public Hospitals Act 1929 and the Area Health Services Act 1986. The Health Services Act consolidates the provisions of the former acts and introduces a number of new provisions for a modern health care system. The new Act recognises the importance of the roles of health promotion and education, community health and environmental health services.

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