Right time for rural crisis focus
The looming federal poll is being seen as the best chance for years to secure pledges from the main parties to fix rural health, reports Health editor Adam Cresswell
THE 1700 residents of Baradine and its hinterland in north-western NSW need little convincing that there is a crisis in rural health. The town, between Tamworth and Walgett, lost its only remaining GP two months ago, after the doctor concerned found himself burned out by the stress of looking after so many patients without medical back-up.
‘‘ It’s devastating,’’ says Paul Wangmann, owner of the town’s newsagency. ‘‘ My wife got sick last week — we rang (the nearby towns of) Coonabarabran and Coonamble, and they both said it was a three-day wait to see the doctor.
‘‘ My wife just toughed it out at home. But it’s affected morale in the town — there are a lot of elderly people who need to get scripts, and if they run out of pills they get very worried.’’
The area health service has arranged for a locum doctor to be available, but so far availability has been patchy. Wangmann says the locum was only available for 11/ days this
2 week, and none last week. The locum doctor is expected to be replaced with a fresh fill-in doctor every two weeks, so patients have to retell their histories each time they see the new physician. And this isn’t a one-off. Coonabarabran and Coonamble, both several hours’ drive away, have themselves both lost doctors: Coonamble is one doctor short, and Coonabarabran recently lost two trainees.
Although suddenly no longer having a doctor around in case of medical emergency is alarming for affected residents, who now find themselves with fewer options for medical care, stories like this are hardly new.
What is new is that a number of medical, nursing and other health pressure groups are now sensing right now to be an unmissable opportunity to wring concessions from politicians vying to win the looming federal election.
There was a time when it was hard to imagine a senior Government minister going near a conference to hammer out solutions to a rural health ‘‘ crisis’’, because that would imply they agreed the situation amounted to a crisis — responsibility for which would inevitably be attributed, at least in part, to the Government.
But the rules change when a fierce election battle looms.
Deputy Prime Minister Mark Vaile not only attended, but opened, a ‘‘ rural health crisis summit’’ held in Canberra this week by the Australian Medical Association, which discussed the factors straining rural health resources and the measures needed to fix it.
In his speech to the summit, Vaile, who is also leader of the Nationals and Minister for Transport and Regional Services, did not speak of a crisis or admit there was one. But he did say that rural health care delivery ‘‘ presents continuing challenges’’, and the problems had ‘‘ built up over time and cannot be fixed overnight’’.
According to Vaile, who attended as representative of both the Government and health minister Tony Abbott, the problems of rural health are caused by many things outside the Government’s control (such as the preference of doctors to work in the cities and the ageing of the medical workforce and the population as a whole) and the Government has responded with policies that will bear fruit in the medium to long term.
These include doubling the number of medical students by 2012 and establishing bonded student places, requiring doctors who qualify under the scheme to work in the bush for a designated period.
But there are many in the rural sector who think whatever is being done is insufficient.
The AMA’s own position, summarised in its Bridging the Gap document released at the summit, emphasises the shortfall in health services in rural areas, even though nearly 7 million Australians live in the regions.
Its policy document released this week points out there are about 3300 additional deaths annually in rural areas than would be expected if mortality was at the same level as seen in the major cities.
The document spells out a number of measures the AMA wants the major parties to commit to ahead of the election, including rebuilding rural hospital infrastructure, and better funding deals for the bush through the next round of Australian Health Care Agreements due to be signed next year.
Several of the recommendations also focus Continued inside — Page 19
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