Dr Sidney Sax

Dr Sidney Sax


Dr Sidney Sax was born on a farm near Devon, in what was then the Transvaal Province of South Africa. Dr Sax was educated in South Africa at the University of Witwatersrand, obtaining degrees in Chemistry and Medicine.

He later obtained doctorates in both public health and medicine, and fellowships of the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, and the Royal Australasian College of Medical Administrators.

He worked as a Medical Superintendent and tutor in social medicine and dispensary practice in Johannesburg between 1948 and 1951, before moving on to become a specialist physician in Rhodesian government hospitals and the Royal Rhodesian Air Force.

Dr Sax came to Australia in 1960, serving as a physician and deputy medical superintendent at Garrawarra and Lidcombe hospitals before becoming Director of Geriatrics for New South Wales in 1964. He worked primarily as a geriatrician at that time and was a great advocate of aged care assessment teams, long before they became generally accepted. He was also strongly in favour of community care, to help older people retain their independence in their own homes.

In December 1972 Bill Hayden, the then Minister for Social Security, approached Dr Sax to set up the Hospitals and Health Services Commission, an influential post he remained at until it was disbanded in 1978. Under Dr Sax’s leadership the Commission pioneered Commonwealth involvement in health services delivery. The Commission developed policies concerning the supply and distribution of health services and established a national health service planning model. The model envisaged a network of services comprised of primary care, private specialist care, hospitals, nursing homes, hostels and rehabilitation and domiciliary care. Of central importance was primary health care.

Dr Sidney Sax was in effect Australia’s first health planner, now a recognised health professional discipline.

Dr Sax played a key role during this period in the development of Medibank, our first universal national health insurance scheme. In a sense, his role complemented that of Scotton and Deeble. He convinced Prime Minister Whitlam to work cooperatively with the states using Section 96 of the Constitution to provide Commonwealth funds for public hospitals conditional on the states guaranteeing free and universal access. Together with the medical benefits scheme and the pharmaceutical benefits scheme, this ensured comprehensive universal insurance, not that much different to what we now know as Medicare.

Dr Sax continued his influence in matters relating to health as a special adviser to Prime Minister Fraser as well as Chair of the Commission. As mentioned when the Commission was abolished in 1978 he became the Chair of the Social Welfare Policy Secretariat.

In 1982 he was awarded a CBE, or Commander of the British Empire, for his services to health in this country and in 1983 he became a Visiting Fellow at the ANU.

Under the Hawke Government Dr Sax became the founding Chairman of the National Health and Medical Research Council’s Health Research and Development Committee in 1987. He was also a visiting fellow for the newly established Australian Institute of Health now the AIHW until 1994. In 1995 he took on the role of Vice President of Unicef Australia

A prolific writer on health and social issues Dr Sax had an impressive list of publications, including the following books:

  • Medical Care in the Melting Pot in 1972
  • Medicine in the 80s: Can we Afford it?
  • A Strife of Interests (in 1984)
  • Health Care Choices and the Public Purse (in 1990) and
  • Ageing and Public Policy in Australia (in 1993)

Plus, he published over 60 journal articles in the fields of epidemiology, chronic disease, geriatrics and health services administration.

Any assessment of Australia’s health system must recognise the extraordinary contribution of Dr Sidney Sax over four decades. It is over this period that we have developed a truly national approach, not only in terms of universal health insurance but more particularly in terms of a national system of health services directed towards improving health outcomes. So many of the milestones have the name Sidney Sax etched in somewhere.

The Sidney Sax Medal is awarded to an individual who has made an outstanding contribution in the field of health services policy, organisation, delivery and research (excluding clinical research). The Sax Medal awards outstanding achievement in and contribution to the development and improvement of the Australian healthcare system. To be eligible for the award the individual nominee must still be active in the health services field.

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