Media event date: 
1 May 2020
Date published: 
22 May 2020
Media type: 
Statement
Audience: 
General public

The Minister for Regional Health, Regional Communications and Local Government,
the Hon Mark Coulton MP, chaired the fifth special rural health COVID-19 roundtable with members of the Rural Health Stakeholder group.

Minister Coulton confirmed the announcement of arrangements with the Royal Flying Doctor Service and CareFlight for expanded emergency aeromedical retrieval services, to support rural communities during the COVID-19 response. The Minister reiterated the importance of encouraging vulnerable Australians such as those with chronic conditions, or those receiving pre-natal care, to continue regularly visiting their GP.

Minister Coulton highlighted the promising response to the Government’s COVIDSafe phone app, with over 5 million Australians signing up to the integral contact tracing support for our path out of this pandemic. The more Australians who download the app, the greater its utility; Minister Coulton urged stakeholders to work with their members to encourage further community uptake.

Minister Coulton also warned of Australians becoming complacent as the country successfully  flattens the curve. As States and Territories begin relaxing restrictions, every Australian must remain mindful of their personal responsibilities in managing the pandemic and are encourage to maintain disciplined hygiene and social distancing practices.

Senior Department of Health staff provided updates on the Commonwealth COVID-19 response. Participants provided valuable feedback to the Minister on the current focus and efforts of their own organisations in response to the outbreak.

Update on rural concerns

The Roundtable was updated on the continued roll out of the Government’s 100 GP respiratory clinics, with clinics now open in 57 locations and contracts in place for a further 69 facilities.

National Rural Health Commissioner, has implemented a forum for dialogue between the operators of these respiratory clinics and the Commissioner.

With 6.86 million services delivered so far and more than $350 million in benefits paid, telehealth services are enabling rural communities during pandemic lockdown measures to maintain access to medical services. It was confirmed by Department staff that medical students could be involved in telehealth consultations for training purposes, as long as no charge is incurred by Medicare.  

Work is underway to develop guidelines for a consistent approach to pregnancy and antenatal care during the pandemic response. The Government is collaborating with:

  • Monash University;
  • Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists; and
  • Australian College of Midwives

Stakeholders raised the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) as an ongoing concern within the sector, acknowledging the great work done to date to alleviate serious supply chain issues. Health Officials provided update on distribution of PPE from the National Medical Stockpile. Primary Health Networks (PHNs) are now directed to provide PPE masks to allied health professionals, noting the important role these health professionals play in providing health and rehabilitation services. Read further information on PPE for health care professionals, including instructions on PPE use.

Update on workforce matters

The Australian Government is committed to supporting the health workforce on the front line of pandemic response.

The Department confirmed that work to identify stand-by surge workforce options continues. These preparations are not designed to replace existing health care workers but rather to support any workforce shortfalls in worst-case scenarios. Health officials confirmed the Department of Home Affairs agreed to allow international medical and health care students to work more than 40 hours per fortnight if already employed in a health care setting.

Since 20 April 2020, physiotherapists, psychologists and radiographers were added to the short-term 12 month pandemic sub-register established by the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA). The register aims to support surge workforce capacity during COVID-19, targeting specific non-practising health professionals or those who held registration in the past 3 years. The register currently includes doctors, nurses, midwives, and pharmacists. 

Stakeholders discussed continued engagement with aged care homes and the workforce. Health Officials confirmed that a residential aged care COVID-19 webinar will be held by the Department on 8 May from 4:00pm-5:00pm, for residential aged care providers and their staff. The webinar will focus on:

  • preparing for outbreaks;
  • when an outbreak is suspected and confirmed; and
  • declaring an outbreak over.

In order to support doctors responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government is implementing a number of short-term measures to waive or streamline Medicare requirements. These short-term measures will ensure eligible doctors can continue to satisfy their obligations under section 19AA and 19AB of the Health Insurance Act 1973 and provide Medicare services to patients in their current practice.

The most up to date information on the Australian Government response to the coronavirus can be found at www.health.gov.au

Minister Coulton advised that any immediate concerns should be raised directly ahead of the next meeting and thanked stakeholders for their engagement and advocacy supporting rural communities to prepare as the COVID-19 situation further develops.  

Twenty-one rural health stakeholder organisations participate in these regular COVID-19 roundtables, along with the National Rural Health Commissioner and the Commonwealth Department of Health.

Participant list

Members participating in the teleconference for the 1 May 2020 were:

  • Australian Rural Health Education Network
  • CRANAplus
  • National Rural Health Commissioner
  • Pharmaceutical Society of Australia
  • Royal Australian College of General Practitioners- Rural Faculty
  • National Rural Health Alliance
  • Rural Doctors Association of Australia
  • Rural Health Workforce Australia
  • Federation of Rural Australian Medical Educators
  • Royal Flying Doctor Service
  • Australian Medical Association
  • Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine
  • Indigenous Allied Health Australia
  • National Rural Health Student Network
  • Pharmacy Guild of Australia
  • National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Worker Association
  • Rural Workforce Agencies Network & Health Workforce Queensland
  • Services for Australian Rural and Remote Allied Health
  • Allied Health Professions Australia
  • Australian Dental Association

Apologies:

  • Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association
  • Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses and Midwives