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Thank you Ros, for the warm welcome.
I’d like to begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet and to pay my respect to elders past, present and emerging.
I extend that respect to all First Nations people who are here with us today.
Thank you particularly to Aunty Lola for your generous Welcome to Country.
I also particularly acknowledge:
- Adjunct Professor Ruth Stewart, National Rural Health Commissioner
- Dr Marita Cowie and Dr Dan Halliday, respectively CEO and President of the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine
- Dr Rachel Christmas, newly elected President of the NSW Rural Doctors Association.
Rural Health Month is a timely and important opportunity for Australia’s rural health professionals to come together to focus on the challenges and (indeed) the opportunities of bridging the city-country divide.
It’s an opportunity to pay tribute to those among you who do incredible work in rural and regional communities – those who, as medical professionals, might have taken the road less-travelled.
No doubt you have many stories – some triumphs, some heartbreaks.
And I do want to acknowledge those areas of healthcare where rural communities do worse than their metro/urban/city counterparts and where we need to strive to do better.
I equally want to recognise the successes - of innovation, collaboration and local solutions - where world class care is provided in some of the most remote parts of the country.
I’ve been lucky to visit many communities and wherever these successes occur, I do see it as part of my job to try to capture them to feed back into policy making in Canberra.
Rural health is a key focus of the Australian Government’s commitment to strengthening primary health care right across the country – so that all Australians can access the health care they need, when they need it, as close to home as possible.
This year’s Budget strongly demonstrates that commitment, with some major primary healthcare measures.
First among them is tripling the bulk billing incentive and boosting Medicare rebate indexation – the single largest investment in bulk billing in the 40-year history of Medicare.
This change means a significant increase to the Medicare payments to bulk bill eligible patients.
In our major cities, it means 34% more for a standard bulk billed Level B 20-minute consultation, taking the Medicare payment for eligible patients to $62.05.
In regional and rural Australia, around 50% more for the same visit.
Depending on location the Medicare payment has risen to between $72.80 and $81.10.
We have seen a positive early response among clinics in different parts of the country where bulk billing or mixed billing is now back as an option.
I hope that applies to some of you here today.
The Budget also funded 58 Medicare Urgent Care Clinics – largely GP-led teams – to grow the primary care footprint and ease pressure on hospital emergency departments.
This rollout is well underway.
In my own community on the Central Coast of NSW, one UCC has just opened in Umina and the second will follow soon in Lake Haven.
Once again general practice has been integral in this initiative and I hope it signifies what the government sees as a partnership between us, brought about by a need to better meet public health needs.
Of course, the workforce challenge is ever-present in this discussion.
A major focus of our efforts is building the right health workforce for rural Australia.
This is because the discrepancy in health outcomes is stubbornly persistent.
It remains the case that the further you live outside a major centre, the worse your health outcomes are likely to be.
We know that for a woman living in the most remote parts of Australia that her life expectancy is around 16 years shorter than her city counterpart.
Everyone in this room is aware of the difficulty rural communities face in attracting and retaining health professionals to provide local primary care services.
But this challenge is not just one of supply.
It is equally – perhaps primarily – one of uneven distribution.
Sometimes the market provides health services where and when they are needed.
Sometimes it does not.
And so we are always looking the for most effective way to achieve the health outcomes we all want on the ground.
Earlier this week, Minister Mark Butler announced we will undertake a wide-ranging review to urgently investigate how to more equitably distribute doctors and other health workers around the country.
The Working Better for Medicare Review will look at how current policies and programs can be strengthened to make it easier to see a doctor, nurse or other health worker in areas of workforce shortage, including – of course – in regional, rural and remote Australia.
That includes looking at whether the three main policy levers Government has – Modified Monash Model; District of Workforce Shortage, and; Distribution Priority Area – whether those levers are still fit for purpose.
The aim is to have an appropriately located workforce, particularly in areas that find it difficult to attract and keep doctors, so that all Australians can access the care they need, when they need it, regardless of where they choose to live.
This work will be led by nurse, advocate and remote health expert Professor Sabina Knight, and former senior health bureaucrat and academic Mick Reid.
The Review will be underpinned by extensive stakeholder engagement and I know many peak bodies are ready to go with input.
We expect the findings to be provided to government in the middle of next year.
The government will continue to look for opportunities to grow and support the rural and regional health workforce, for example in training:
- 100 additional permanent Commonwealth Supported Places for rural medical students, starting next year
- New and expanded rural medical schools such as one I opened in Kalgoorlie this week
- An increase to the John Flynn pre-vocational placements by almost 1,000 so up to 4000 rotations will be occurring by 2026.
And in employment, a significant expansion of the Single Employer Model.
We have more than 20 Single Employer Model pilots under way, with up to 80 GP trainees, and we know they have been very welcome.
For instance, the whole state of Tasmania is now part of the Single Employer Model.
These trials are giving the next generation of GPs the financial scaffolding to transition more easily from their hospital-based training to working in general practice in our regional and remote communities.
We greatly value the input of general practice in the framing of these policies.
Forums like this are a great way to bring such vast professional expertise together, to celebrate it and also distil it into material which might offer decision makers a better way to do things.
Strengthening of primary care cannot happen without you, especially not in the country.
So once again I thank you for the amazing work you do in your own communities and reiterate the Australian Government’s hope to work with you in lifting the health outcomes of these communities up to where they deserve to be.
I wish you well for an informative and enjoyable conference.