Startling evidence reveals that each person living in rural areas is missing out on nearly $850 worth of healthcare access annually, resulting in a staggering total rural health spending deficit of $6.5 billion.
This substantial funding shortfall has severe implications for the ability of rural Australians to access essential health and medical services in their own communities. The report, compiled by the renowned Nous Group, underscores the pressing need for a comprehensive National Rural Health Strategy that consolidates various fragmented rural health initiatives into a cohesive framework.
According to Susi Tegen, Chief Executive of the Alliance, the report examines health spending from the perspective of patients, highlighting the alarming day-to-day realities faced by rural Australians who struggle to access equitable care.
“Over 7 million people, who make up nearly a third of Australia’s population, experience a greater burden from illness and early death, in part due to inadequate funding for their health care. This is despite the significant contribution they make to Australia’s economy,” she said.
Rural industries and resources alone account for approximately 80% of Australia’s exports, not including the added value of rural-based services and manufacturing. The agricultural, fisheries, and forestry sectors generate exports worth $76 billion, while commodities exports contribute a staggering $497 billion, collectively amounting to over $500 billion for the nation, courtesy of rural Australia.
Rural regions are responsible for over 90% of fresh food sold within the country and contribute to almost half of the nation’s tourism income, directly employing over half a million individuals in tourism-related industries.
Regrettably, rural communities face a triple health disadvantage characterised by adverse social determinants of health, limited service availability and higher costs associated with access and delivery, ultimately leading to poor health outcomes.
While the government has made investments in workforce initiatives and implemented certain measures to support rural health, these efforts fall short of sufficiently improving service availability and patient access to healthcare. The impact of social determinants of health on rural residents is evident as they experience prolonged illness and frequently resort to hospitalisation due to inadequate primary care access to doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals.
Adequate funding in this area would help keep people healthy and alleviate the burden on the expensive and overburdened hospital system.
To address these challenges, rural communities require more flexible government support, including block funding or genuine support funding, to establish multidisciplinary care for patients. Collaboration is already ingrained in rural communities, but higher costs of access and delivery necessitate a different and more comprehensive approach to healthcare delivery, one that diverges from the model available to urban populations.
In response, the Alliance advocates for the funding of a place-based multidisciplinary model of primary health care known as Primary care Rural Integrated Multidisciplinary Health Services (PRIM-HS). This model offers the flexibility to engage communities and address local needs in partnership, akin to the successful approach of Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations (ACCHOs).
Tegen emphasises the need for communities to have access to healthcare services in their localities. The Alliance urges the government to augment existing city-based and hybrid training programs with a flipped model of exceptional rural medical and allied training, including nurse training. This approach would make urban training the exception rather than the norm, enabling students living in rural areas to train within their own communities.
The question arises: why should people living in rural Australia pay twice or thrice the amount for the same health care available in cities, yet still have poorer health? Why do they need to fundraise to access a service that should be provided through their taxes? Unfortunately, this is the grim reality faced by many rural Australians, according to Tegen.
Investing in rural areas would not only reduce costs within the hospital sector and emergency departments but, more importantly, it would amplify the already substantial economic contribution of rural communities to Australia’s overall well-being.
The Alliance is committed to working closely with federal and state governments, ministers and departments to rectify the situation. Tegen stresses that superficial trials and short-term funding have left rural communities exhausted.
The 48 national Members of the Alliance, all dedicated to the welfare of rural Australia, eagerly anticipate the much-needed redirection of funds to fundamentally redesign primary healthcare in rural areas from the grassroots level.
The report, titled “The Evidence base for additional investment in rural health in Australia,” was prepared by the Health and Ageing practice of Nous Group. The project was undertaken as part of Nous Group’s Community Partnership Scheme, which invites community and not-for-profit organisations in Australia to apply for subsidised consulting services biannually.