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Rural alarm bells

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  Two matters of concern to all rural Australians are the cutbacks to university funding announced in the Budget, and the National Party pushing its election promise to enhance rural mental health services to one side.

Every solution to the rural medical workforce shortage has a common key component – to train students with a rural background in rural and regional Australia, so they do not lose their connection with the bush and willingly return to serve their communities.

The Government’s 20 per cent cut  to university funding, to be offset by deregulating university fees, certainly won’t help this happen.

As fees soar, the number of talented rural students able to access medical training will fall, given that they are already burdened by substantial expenses due to living away from home. Ivy-league urban centres of excellence will no doubt charge bigger fees than rural universities, and use some of the “cream” to fund scholarships for rural students to get their required quotas. However, one doubts if rural campuses will have matching funds to compete.

So, more students will go to inner urban areas to study and, no doubt, more will choose more lucrative inner urban procedural sub-specialties as a career to offset their greater accrued educational debt.

Hopefully, the Government will put some safeguards in place to prevent this happening but, as yet, none have been proposed.

Rural Australia has higher rates of depression and suicide than urban areas.

The causes for this are many, though a dearth of employment opportunities and higher alcohol use figure prominently.

Before the Federal election, the Nationals promised to target the issue with education and media campaigns. Sadly, this has been shelved. It would have been a worthy Government initiative of more bang for one’s buck than the Coalition’s proposed ‘Rolls Royce’ paid maternal leave scheme.

Personally, I doubt we will see any meaningful rural health policies out of the Coalition until much closer to the next election.

Even the almost-completed review of the current geographic delineation of remoteness/rurality, which is key to making the best use of taxpayer incentives to encourage rural practice has, almost a year after the Coalition’s election, not seen the light of day.

The AMA’s annual Parliamentary Dinner at Parliament House [on 27 August] was an opportunity to speak to Senator Fiona Nash about low-cost initiatives to enhance rural care, such as getting the Council of Australian Governments to embrace telehealth as a core component of rural care. Were all urban tertiary centres to routinely offer telehealth as an option, where clinically appropriate, it would reduce the need of patients in remote and isolated areas to travel so much for health care.

The Dinner was also a chance to encourage RACGP President Dr Liz Marles to work hard to try and find common ground between her College and the ACCRM to assume control of GP training when GPET is no more, for this is not a role for corporates nor the Health Department.