A Promising Commitment to Rural Health

SARRAH applauds the announcement today by Minister for Regional Health, the Hon Mark Coulton MP, that the Office of the Rural Health Commissioner is to be extended and the Commissioner will be supported by Deputy Commissioners with expertise in Indigenous health, nursing and allied health. 

These are crucial appointments, needed to drive action across the full range of health care needed in rural and remote Australia.

Continuing the Office, building on Professor Worley’s work and expanding its capacity are enormously important and welcome. For the seven million Australians living in regional, rural and remote Australia, many do not have adequate access to services most Australians can rely on – in hospitals, in the community, in aged care or in disability services.

“We welcomed the refreshing approach Paul has taken. He has consulted deeply and with many rural health stakeholder and communities, made the effort to deepen his understanding and add a strong, coherent voice for reform to address underlying issues and deliver lasting, practical improvement in access and quality for rural and remote health services’, said SARRAH President Rob Curry. “Australia has among the best health and social service systems in the world. But not everyone has the access they need and most people assume will be available. We need services that are designed to work and be sustainable wherever people live, whether it’s in suburbs, farming communities or Aboriginal communities on traditional lands.”

The experience of COVID19 has highlighted what our health system is capable of delivering and how quickly good decisions can be made when they need to be. It showed again that we do not have all the resources we need in regional and remote Australia to protect people, but strong, coherent measures were put in place to deal with the threat.

“We know Paul Worley was very active in this area as well”, said Rob. “Australia reacted quickly then. Now we see in places like the UK, people recovering from COVID19, many of them young, having severe post COVID19 recovery needs. There is intense demand on rehabilitation services. Many people don’t understand this is the sort of work allied health professionals do; like speech pathologists and physiotherapists who help people to breathe, swallow and walk again after a prolonged stay in ICU. The problem is we just don’t have anywhere near the number of these people in rural and remote Australia that we need.”

Fortunately, the Rural Health Commissioner has been looking into exactly these issue and is about to deliver his report to the Government - on Rural Allied Health Quality, Access and Distribution including recommendations. It couldn’t be more timely or important. That report is to be delivered to Minister Coulton this month.

In August last year Minister Hunt launched Australia’s Long Term National Health Plan and said Our goal: is to make Australia’s health system the world’s number one. Australia is currently ranked number two. SARRAH agrees with the goal, supports it and believes it can be achieved if the commitment is real. There are only two areas where Australia ranks below the top 2: in Access, where we rank 4, and Equity, where we rank 7.

“The Commissioner’s allied health report should help steer the course we need to be on to reach the goal”, said Cath Maloney, SARRAH CEO. “We know it’s more than coincidence that the highest levels of chronic disease, premature death, avoidable hospitalisations and suicide are also where it’s hardest to get access to health professionals. For instance, people living in Australia’s cities have access to 3-4 times as many psychologists as the same number of people living in rural and remote areas”, said Cath. “Initiatives, like better telehealth are important, but we also need skilled people on the ground in communities, understanding them, what’s available locally and the pressures rural communities face.”

Minister Coulton is right to highlight the benefits of living in rural Australia. We have the opportunity to make it even better and address these issues. With the good will, coherent strategies and commitment, long-standing and underlying issues of relative health and wellbeing of rural and remote communities can be addressed.

With the right systems and services, designed and delivered with and for people in rural and remote Australia, we can reduce the higher incidence of premature death, chronic disease and people being admitted to hospital when it could have been avoided. We can increase the quality of life and opportunities available to them.

“These are not new issues and the Rural Health Commissioner has helped to highlight the need and ways to address them. Many of us have argued for this important work to be done for a very long time. There’s been too little action to date. The Commissioner’s inclusive approach and the Minister’s announcements today are cause for optimism”, said Ms Maloney. 

Please direct interviews and media enquiries to: Catherine Maloney, Chief Executive Officer