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Rural and remote health: a progress report

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Doing better, but we still need to sort out who is responsible for what and strengthen primary care

Following an active period of policy development and implementation in the 1990s,1 there have been two national great leaps forward that tackled geographical health inequalities in Australia in the new century. In 2000, in the context of growing disaffection in the rural electorate,2 the then health minister, Michael Wooldridge, was responsible for a federal Budget centrepiece of $562 million, the Regional Health Strategy: More Doctors, Better Services. The package included the establishment of university departments of rural health and rural clinical schools, as well as retention incentives for rural doctors. The second leap resulted from the balance of power held by the two rural independents in 2010. Their agreement with the minority Labor government for regional development included investment of some $2.33 billion in rural and remote health infrastructure, including regional cancer centres. As ever, the political imperative was key.

Where are we now?

As the fiscal belt tightens and we scan for a similar policy window of opportunity for rural health, it is timely to reflect on progress.

There is no doubt that there have been some very significant gains since 2000. We have moved beyond a deficit view of rural health…