Senate proposals – big step forward for rural health

25 August 2012

Implementation of the recommendations from the Senate Committee reviewing the supply of
health services and medical professionals to rural areas would constitute the biggest step forward
for better health for rural people in over a decade.

This is the view of the National Rural Health Alliance, the peak body for rural and remote health,
in response to the Committee‟s report, which was released on Wednesday 22 August.

The Committee recommends that the Department of Health‟s Rural and Regional Health Australia
lead work to improve rural and remote health, including analysing the effectiveness of current
programs. Its Report emphasises the need for good quality data on rural health issues, and draws
attention to the gaps in knowledge to which research efforts should be directed.

Given the existing shortages of nurses and allied health professionals in rural and remote areas -
projected to become even worse by the year 2025 - the proposal for a HECS reimbursement
scheme for these professions should be acted upon by the Government as soon as possible.

“HECS reimbursement for nurses and allied health professionals who choose to work in rural and
remote areas will be very valuable,” according to Gordon Gregory, the NRHA‟s Executive
Director.

The Committee‟s recommendation relating to the much-contested remoteness classification
scheme will be widely supported. Hopefully a new system can be in place soon for the
distribution of general practice incentives – a classification system that takes into account updated
population, workforce, professional and social data and is accompanied by modelling and public
consultation.

The NRHA welcomes the Senate Committee‟s recognition of the important contribution
international medical graduates (IMGs) are making to rural health, and its endorsement of the
recommendations of the Lost in the Labyrinth report. “IMGs should receive the support they deserve
through registration and accreditation processes - as well as from the local communities in which they
work,” Mr Gregory said.

While it has a significant emphasis on rural general practice, the Committee's Report has a
refreshingly balanced approach to the various health professions and the role of multidisciplinary
teams in delivering health services to meet local needs and minimise professional isolation. For
example, it emphasises the need for housing as a part of rural placement programs, especially for
nurses, allied health professionals and Aboriginal Health Workers.

“We are pleased that the report does not duck the important but sometimes controversial issue of
scopes of practice for various health professions, and how the health care required can be best divided
up between them,” Mr Gregory said.

Rural people will intuitively support the idea of applying "meaningful sanctions" to universities that
fail to meet the enrolment targets that are in place to ensure fair representation of students from rural
and remote areas in medical courses.

The report makes the point that some of our public institutions can do much to improve health services
in rural and remote areas. For example, universities, professional Colleges and regulatory bodies
should make every effort to ensure it is easier for health professionals to be recruited and trained
locally – which will improve the likelihood that they will remain and practise in their local area.

The Alliance also supports the Committee‟s “cautious optimism" about the potential of Medicare
Locals to identify and fill local service gaps. There will be significant opportunities stemming from the
public consultation and engagement with the Medicare Locals Needs Assessment Reports, the
evidence required for them and the accountability they will bring.

The final recommendation in the Committee's Report relates to policy misalignment between the
Commonwealth and State which might contribute to some health service gaps. The Alliance‟s view
remains that development of a National Rural Health Plan by the Commonwealth would play a
significant role in clarifying the responsibilities of various governments and improving health
outcomes.

The Alliance will be encouraging the Government to adopt the Committee‟s recommendations en
bloc. Let‟s take the “big step‟ for rural health!

Media Release Contact Info: 

Gordon Gregory, Executive Director: 02 6285 4660
www.ruralhealth.org.au
Twitter: @NRHAlliance