TOM CONNELL, HOST: A new report from the Australian Medical Association says labour shortfalls in rural and regional areas is not improving, setting its sights on possible fixes during a summit on that issue. Joining me now the Assistant Rural and Regional health Minister Emma McBride. Thanks for your time. Do you agree with the prospect here? We know this is an issue and it’s not getting better.
EMMA MCBRIDE, ASSISTANT MINISTER: We know that in Australia today, the further you live outside of a big city, the worse your health outcomes are likely to be, and for the seven million Australians who live outside of our major centres we’re really determined to improve that.
I am pleased to see that the AMA have come together at the summit in Canberra today to put their attention and focus on rural and regional health. As a government, we have invested significantly in the pipeline of medical workforce including an additional 100 Commonwealth Supported Places for medical students, commencing next year. We’ve invested in an additional almost 1,000 John Flynn placements by 2026 for doctors in training to experience rural and regional practice on top of our investment in rural and regional health through Medicare.
So, we’re working across the pipeline and pleased to see the AMA has a sharp focus on rural and regional health today.
CONNELL: When you say 'working', has the situation become better or worse since the election in your view?
MCBRIDE: This is a problem that we won’t be able to resolve quickly but it is one we are determined to work on. Including by working with the AMA, the Royal Australian College of General Practice, and others to make sure we come up with the right solutions that are evidence based and will work in the longer term.
This includes an additional 10 Single Employer Model pilots which allow doctors-in-training to move from training in hospitals through to working in general practice. And we know they have been very welcome, including in Tasmania where the whole state is now part of the Single Employer Model.
CONNELL: When do you think this metric, if you’d like, one of the ones pointed to today by the AMA, is that outside metro areas accessing Medicare is up to 40 per cent harder, or it is done 40 per cent less. When do you think measurements on this, on access to health services in these areas, will start to improve?
MCBRIDE: Something for me, as a healthcare worker who worked in a regional hospital for nearly 10 years, it is absolutely front of mind and I’m personally committed as is our government, to lift outcomes for people living in rural and remote Australia.
What were hoping to see from 1 November – when the indexation of the Medicare Rebate and the tripling of the bulk billing incentive comes into effect – we’re looking to see a boost in Australians who are able to access medical care, particularly children under 16 and older Australians.
This investment through the Strengthening Medicare Taskforce was something Minister Butler and our government has done in partnership with the AMA, with the Royal Australian College of General Practice, to come up with practical solutions that they believe will make a difference in rural and remote Australia.
CONNELL: So, it sounds like you think it will start to improve soon. We will keep an eye on it as we start to lead into the next election, which is still a while off, but these things come around quickly. What about the talk of that it’s not just hard to get GPs but any sort of specialist in the regions. Is that harder than getting GPs? What’s the particular issue that you face in that regard?
MCBRIDE: So, with some specialities including psychiatry, there is a shortage around Australia. However, with other specialities there is a distribution problem. More specialists are registered and practice in our major cities than work in regional and remote Australia. We’re working on that with the STP Program as well, to look into more placements so that doctors-in-training within specialists training courses are able to have more of that training within rural and remote Australia.
We know the significant difference that the right training environment makes when these doctors-in-training are choosing where they will practice in the future. So, as I said we’re investing in pre-vocational doctors through the John Flynn program but also for doctors who are registrars, as part of their training, so that they can get placements in primary care outside of our tertiary hospitals and in rural and remote communities where we particularly need them.
CONNELL: I would have thought one of the big trends we got during and post covid was that people actually wanted to go to these areas. Are health workers different?
MCBRIDE: You’re right, some of the things that have come out of COVID that are beneficial to people living in rural and remote Australia, like the increase and take up of telehealth and video conferencing. I have seen in places, including on the mid-north coast of New South Wales, where medical centres have got telehealth rooms so that people can have an appointment with their specialist who might be practising out of Brisbane or another major centre but connect with them closer to home. We have seen some changes through COVID that have been positive in access to health services and health outcomes for rural and remote communities in Australia but obviously there is much more to do, and we are determined to that by working with the medical colleges, the AMA and the RACGP.
CONNELL: Emma McBride, thanks for your time.
MCBRIDE: Good to be with you.