Maintaining a rural focus in health workforce and illness prevention work

Friday, 20 June 2014

The Alliance has expressed its views to the Senate Inquiry about Government Bills that provide a framework to abolish Health Workforce Australia (HWA) and the Australian National Preventive Health Agency (ANPHA).

The Alliance emphasised the importance of these agencies’ functions, programs and streams of activity continuing unabated when they are transferred to the Department of Health. Both agencies had developed a detailed understanding of the rural and remote aspects of their work, and good relationships with interested parties - including the Alliance.

It is hoped and expected that these special rural capacities will be retained in the work when it is in the Department of Health.

Health promotion and illness prevention are cost-effective and critical in ensuring that Australia retains its status as one of the world’s longest-lived and healthiest countries. We know also that health workforce shortages in rural and remote areas need to be addressed through different models than those that work in metropolitan areas.

The HWA Abolition Bill’s Explanatory Memorandum states that Australia has a “…well distributed health workforce, delivering frontline health services for all Australians”. Many people in rural and remote Australia would be surprised at this description, given that they have poor access to many types of health professional and their services.

The Alliance has emphasised to the Senate Committee the importance of continuing HWA’s strong focus on issues related to regulation, education and multidisciplinary approaches. These encompass medical practitioners and nurses, allied health professionals, pharmacists, dentists, paramedics and health service managers.

It has been of significance that HWA developed a clear understanding of the particular needs of health services in rural, regional and remote areas and recognised that workforce design and planning need to work backwards from outcomes for consumers and population needs.

The Alliance also highlighted the importance of ANPHA’s work on reducing tobacco use, harmful drinking and substance abuse. It is to be hoped that in its work in these areas the Department of Health will recognise the relative failure, to date, of health promotion campaigns in rural areas. The fact that smoking rates have fallen in Australia's major cities, but not in rural and especially remote areas, is a matter of considerable concern.

Despite its undoubted benefit-cost ratio, only around three per cent of Australia's health dollar is currently spent on health promotion and illness prevention. The value of this three per cent needs to be monitored and hopefully the proportion will be increased.

In continuing HWA’s and ANPHA’s work, the Department must give attention to the particular characteristics of more remote areas, including their special workforce needs.

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