Bowel cancer

Navigating the health system

Bowel cancer

Navigating the health system star_border Save this page

The Australian health system is large and complicated. Using it when you have cancer can be stressful.

Knowing a bit about how the system works can make this easier.

Health professionals

People who have cancer see a lot of different health professionals during their diagnosis and treatment.


Doctors are responsible for diagnosing and treating illnesses, including cancers. 

The specialist doctors you see will depend on the type of cancer you have. They can include:

  • surgeon
  • radiation oncologist
  • medical oncologist
  • haematologist
  • anaesthetist
  • pathologist
  • radiologist
  • nuclear medicine physician
  • palliative care physician.

In hospitals, doctors work in teams. The members of the team have different titles depending on their experience:

  • consultant – the team leader, who is an experienced specialist 
  • fellows – have completed their specialist training or are in their final year of specialist training
  • registrars and advanced trainees – have completed several years of medical training, are undergoing specialist training and work closely with the consultant
  • residents – have completed at least one year of medical training since leaving university
  • interns – in their first year after university qualification
  • medical students – are completing university qualifications in medicine.


Nurses play a large role in coordinating the care of people with cancer. They work with doctors to help manage the care of people with cancer, in hospital, in outpatients and also at home.

Some nurses have done further study to specialise in looking after people with cancer. These include:

  • clinical nurse specialist
  • cancer care coordinator
  • clinical nurse consultant
  • nurse practitioner
  • many registered nurses working in cancer care.

Allied health professionals

There are many allied health professionals involved in the care of people with cancer:

  • dietitian
  • genetic counsellor
  • occupational therapist
  • pharmacist
  • physiotherapist
  • psychologist
  • radiation therapist
  • radiographer
  • social worker
  • sonographer
  • speech pathologist
  • exercise physiologist.

Other health workers

There are also many other people who work in hospitals and other parts of the health system. These people keep the system running, and support health professionals in their work. They include office staff, porters, cleaners, kitchen staff, and health service managers.

Health system structure

Health care levels

The health system is split into three main levels or tiers. These are called primary, secondary and tertiary.

  • Primary health care – health professionals working in the community, e.g., general practitioners (GPs), dentists, community nurses, Aboriginal health workers or physiotherapists.
  • Secondary health care – a more specialised type of health care involving specialist doctors and other health professionals. It can take place in a hospital or a private clinic.
  • Tertiary health care – a very specialised type of care. It usually takes place in large teaching hospitals or special units, e.g. cancer centres.

Public and private health care

Australia has a public and a private health system. This can cause a lot of confusion.

The public health system

The public health system is run by the government.

  • Medicare is the Australian Government health insurance scheme.
  • When you work, some of your taxes are used to fund Medicare.
  • Medicare covers the costs for you to be treated as a public patient in a public hospital.
  • Medicare also pays some of the costs of seeing health professionals or having tests.
  • Depending on your situation, you may still have to pay some costs
  • To be covered by Medicare, you need to be an Australian citizen or permanent resident (although some countries have shared Medicare access under certain circumstances, e.g. New Zealand).

  The private health system

The private health system is run by private organisations. 

  • Anyone can pay to be treated in the private system, but many people take out private health insurance to cover some of the costs of private treatment.
  • People with private health insurance pay premiums to their health insurance companies.
  • Their health insurance company covers some of the costs of treatment in the private health system.
  • Medicare also pays for some of their treatment as well.
  • The patient has to pay any remaining costs, which are called gap payments.
  • These costs can be quite high in some situations.
  • Make sure you talk to your health insurance company about what they will cover.

Where to get help

There are people you can talk to for more information or support.

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