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AMA calls for fair go for bush health

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The AMA has encouraged all major political parties to deliver significant real funding increases for health care in regional, rural and remote Australia.

Immediate-past President Professor Brian Owler made the appeal when he launched the AMA’s plan for Better Health Care for Regional, Rural, and Remote Australia at Parliament House last month.

Professor Owler said that the life expectancy for those living in regional areas was up to two years less than the broader population, and up to seven years less in remote areas, and needed to change.

“It is essential that Government policy and resources are tailored and targeted to cater to the unique nature of rural health care and the diverse needs of rural and remote communities to ensure they receive timely, comprehensive, and quality care,” Professor Owler said.

The AMA plan focusses on four key measures – rebuilding country hospital infrastructure; supporting recruitment and retention; encouraging more young doctors to work in rural areas; and supporting rural practices.

The plan encourages Federal, State and Territory governments to work together to ensure that rural hospitals are adequately funded to meet the needs of their local communities. More than 50 per cent of small rural maternity units have closed in the past two decades.

Professor Owler said rural hospitals needed modern facilities, and must attract a sustainable health workforce.

“We need to invest in hospital infrastructure,” Professor Owler said. “When hospitals don’t have investment, when their infrastructure runs down, it makes it much harder for rural doctors to service patients in their communities.”

He called on the Council of Australian Government (COAG) to consider a detailed funding stream for rural hospitals, backed by a national benchmark and performance framework.

Professor Owler visited a rural GP practice at Bungendore and spoke with the local doctors about the issues and barriers of delivering high quality timely health care to the community.

“General practice is the backbone of rural health care, providing high quality primary care services for patients, procedural and emergency services at local hospitals, as well as training the next generation of GPs,” Professor Owler said.

“Rural GPs would like to do more, but face significant infrastructure limitations in areas such as IT, equipment, and physical space.

“Rural general practices need to be properly funded to improve their available infrastructure, expand services they provide to patients and support improved opportunities for teaching in general practice.”

The AMA has recommend that the Government fund a further 425 rural GP infrastructure grants, worth up to $500,000 each, to assist rural GPs.

Professor Owler added that timely access to a doctor was a key problem for people living in rural areas, with the overall distribution of doctors skewed heavily towards the major cities. He said the burden of medical workforce shortages fell disproportionately on communities in regional, rural and remote areas.

The number of GP proceduralists or generalists working across rural and remote Australia has steadily been declining. In 2002, 24 per cent of the Australian rural and remote general practice workforce consisted of GP proceduralists. By 2014, this level had dropped to just under 10 per cent.

The AMA and the Rural Doctors Association of Australia have together developed a package that recognises both the isolation of rural and remote practice and the need for the right skill mix in these areas.

The AMA Better Health Care for Regional, Rural, and Remote Australia is available at gp-network-news/ama-plan-better-health-care-regional-…

Kirsty Waterford