A new study on the patterns of chronic illnesses could provide valuable insights into the future health service needs of our ageing population.

The research paper in the Medical Journal of Australia gives the first ever Australian insight into multi-morbidity – when a person has two or more different chronic conditions.

Professor Helena Britt and colleagues from the Family Medicine Research Centre at the University of Sydney studied the multi-morbidities of over 9,000 patients who visited GPs between July and November 2005.

The study found that elderly people are much more likely to have multi-morbidity.

One in four – or 83 per cent – of older survey participants had multi-morbidity, compared to 37.1 per cent of all participants.

The most common morbidity combinations were: arthritis/chronic back pain and vascular disease (15 per cent); a psychological problem and vascular disease (10.6 per cent); and arthritis/chronic back pain plus a psychological problem (10.6 per cent).

Professor Britt said some multi-morbidity combinations were particularly problematic for clinicians and patient – especially when the medication for one problem has negative effects on the other.

“These issues are often not considered in management guidelines for individual conditions,” she said.