Media event date: 
17 April 2020
Date published: 
1 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 fourth special rural health COVID-19 roundtable meeting with members of the Rural Health Stakeholder group. The meeting was held by teleconference in line with social distancing requirements.

Minister Coulton is committed to regular teleconferences to hear from rural health organisations on their priorities and concerns regarding the COVID-19 outbreak and to planning how Government works with these organisations to provide up-to-date and accurate COVID-19 response information to regional, rural, and remote communities. 

Minister Coulton raised the importance of continuing to provide health care to vulnerable rural Australians during the COVID-19 outbreak, especially those with existing chronic conditions or those in need of pre-natal care. The Government encourages rural Australians to attend health clinics for this critical care to ensure their ongoing health and wellbeing.    

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 welcomed the continued roll out of the Government’s 100 GP respiratory clinics, noting that clinics were now open in 27 locations.

Minister Coulton advised an announcement would be made on Monday 20 April 2020 regarding the remote aeromedical retrieval package in response to COVID-19. This would include retrievals, pre-positioning of personal protective equipment and insertion of primary health care professionals in the event of an outbreak in a remote area. This was welcomed by participants.

GP stakeholders raised the importance of patients to continue seeing their local doctor; especially those who are pregnant or suffering chronic conditions. Telehealth was raised as an aid in delivering services to these patients however many patients — especially the elderly — appear to be avoiding medical attention all together.

Stakeholders were provided an update on efforts to secure personal protective equipment (PPE) for the National Medical Stockpile, noting the global shortage. It was acknowledged there are some challenges around supply chain distribution to rural areas and that where possible the Commonwealth is working with the states and territories to provide adequate and consistent supply. Read further information on PPE for health care professionals, including instructions on PPE use.

Stakeholders raised the importance of contact tracing in managing further outbreaks. Since the roundtable, the Government has launched their COVIDSafe application for iOS and Android smartphones.

Update on workforce matters

The Australian Government considers it a priority to support the health workforce on the front lines of the pandemic response.

The Department provided an update on the arrangements with Medcast for additional online intensive care training to upskill up to 20,000 nurses across Australia. As at
14 April 2020, 18,759 applications had been received.  Almost 6,500 (36%) enrolments are from Registered Nurses working in MM2-7.  Of these, 2,500 (14%) are in MM5-7. Further analysis is being undertaken, with remaining places to be targeted to areas of low uptake.   

The group discussed the short-term 12 month pandemic sub-register established by the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (Ahpra). The register aims to support a surge workforce during COVID-19 and targets specific health professionals who were non-practicing or previously held registration in the past 3 years. The register currently includes doctors, nurses, midwives, and pharmacists. From 20 April 2020, Ahpra will extend the sub-register to include physiotherapists, psychologists and radiographers. The Department reiterated that this register was not intended to replace or compete with existing health professionals, but rather to ensure a standby surge workforce is available if existing health professionals cannot be sourced.

Participants discussed current arrangements and planning for student placements during the COVID-19 response period. The Commonwealth encourages the continuation of clinical education, including placements where it is safe to do so, noting the decision to continue clinical placements rests with universities, health services and students. The Department of Health, Ahpra and the Commonwealth Department of Education, Skills and Employment have developed high-level national principles for clinical education during the COVID-19 pandemic response.

Participants also discussed the importance of mental health for all Australians during the COVID-19 response, in particular our front line health workforce responders. Health professionals in rural and remote areas are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of isolation and the stress of COVID-19 professional responsibilities. The Department confirmed the Australian Government is facilitating dedicated mental health support through digital platforms developed for health to provide advice, social support, and assistance in managing stress and anxiety. Peer support programs will also be established providing a safe space for frontline health workers to connect and feel supported through the sharing of personal experiences and challenges.

Update on Indigenous health activities

The Department provided an update on a key component of the approach to stop the transmission of COVID-19 into remote communities. This approach restricts movement into designated remote areas of WA, NT, QLD and SA through the Biosecurity Act 2015, and requires people entering these areas to undertake 14 days of self-isolation prior to entry. The areas covered were nominated by state and territory governments, in consultation with Indigenous communities and stakeholders. Specific Provisions are in place for essential activities such as medical, telecommunications, food supplies and critical infrastructure. Read further information on the restrictions and a copy of the instrument and Explanatory statement.

Grants have been provided to support local planning for remote communities, primarily through health clinics, which can be used flexibly by these organisations. The Government also announced funding of $3.3m to provide Point of Care testing in remote communities, which will provide support to 83 sites in remote areas. Sites will be selected through consultations with stakeholders.

The Department also outlined further work underway with state and territory governments on workforce support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community controlled health services, and communities, in remote locations. These actions are consistent with the Management Plan for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations agreed by the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Group on COVID-19.

Update on pharmacy concerns

The Department provided update on the measures the Government has implemented to support the work of pharmacies in response to COVID-19 and the regular engagement that is occurring with the pharmacy sector to support information sharing and communications, including through two existing weekly forums and working groups.

The Department outlined the steps that have been taken since mid-March to address stockpiling behaviours and increased demand, and to work with the medicines supply chain on measures to ensure equitable access to medicines. The Department also mentioned that work was being finalised, and would be communicated shortly, on the temporary ability to conduct some medication management reviews via telehealth arrangements. 

Summary

It was reiterated that 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 stakeholder organisations are members of the teleconference group, along with the National Rural Health Commissioner and the Commonwealth Department of Health. 

Participant list

Members participating in the teleconference for the 17 April 2020 were:

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

Apologies:

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