Media event date: 
19 June 2020
Date published: 
17 July 2020
Media type: 
Statement
Audience: 
General public

Regional Health Minister, Mark Coulton, chaired the seventh special rural health COVID-19 roundtable meeting with members of the Rural Health Stakeholder group.

Minister Coulton confirmed Parliament passed legislation allowing the office of the National Rural Health Commissioner to continue. The Minister acknowledged outgoing Commissioner, Professor Paul Worley, and commended his extensive contribution to rural health reform.

The next Commissioner will be supported by two Deputy Commissioners. These Deputy Commissioners will provide cross-disciplinary expertise and advice on rural allied health, nursing, and Indigenous health. Further information will be available over the coming weeks.

Stakeholders warmly praised Professor Worley on his application and effort during his tenure, wishing him well for the future. News of an ongoing Office was enthusiastically welcomed by stakeholders, who look forward to the announcement of the next Commissioner.

Minister Coulton confirmed the recent signing of the 7th Community Pharmacy agreement. This agreement demonstrates how greatly Government values the role of pharmacists in supporting health outcomes in regional communities.

Minister Coulton reiterated the risk of Australians becoming complacent as states and territories continue relaxing restrictions. Australia has done extremely well compared with international examples in combating this pandemic; a direct result of the collaborative, disciplined approach by all Australians. The Minister urged all Australians to continue their stringent personal hygiene and social distancing practises.

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 GP-led respiratory clinics. 135 respiratory clinics are operating across Australia, 72 of which are in regional areas. These clinics have conducted more than 150,000 assessments and continue to be well-utilised by local communities. GP-led respiratory clinics have performed 10% of the nation’s coronavirus tests.

An update was provided on Personal Protective Equipment distribution from Primary Health Networks, noting the open market is better managing to meet demand for some PPE items. There are, however, ongoing challenges in access supplies of gowns. Distribution of appropriate supplies of medical masks are progressing, with focus shifting to specific areas of concern.

The remote point of care testing programme continues to be rolled out, with 85 sites confirmed by the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Group and 30 sites active. The first test occurred on 21 May 2020 in the Kimberly. Reducing unnecessary emergency aeromedical retrievals will improve the capacity of these services to respond during potential outbreaks.

In addition to COVID-19 response work, officials confirmed primary care reform gathers pace, focusing on four key areas: rural, indigenous health, GP training and mental health. The Government is considering options for the future of telehealth are also being in the context of the primary care strategy.

Update on mental health response

The Roundtable was updated on the Department’s mental health response to both the COVID-19 outbreak and the bushfires earlier in 2020. Government has made 8 different mental health announcements since the start of 2020, with three focused on bushfire response, three for COVID-19, and two general mental health announcements.

Looking after your mental health during COVID-19 restrictions

In March, $74m was announced for mental health early intervention support. In May, $48.1m was announced as part of the National Mental Health Plan and $20m was announced for research on prevention, pharmaceutical and other mental health grants. Further information is available on the Department of Health website and Roundtable participants were encouraged to direct their members to these sites.

COVID-19 National Health Plan – Supporting the mental health of Australians through the Coronavirus pandemic

Update on workforce matters

The Australian Government prioritises supporting the health workforce at the front line of the pandemic response.

Australia’s response to the pandemic has been exceptional. At this stage, the Department continues to monitor the situation and has a range of workforce response measures to implement if required, as outlined in previous meetings.

The Department continues work on a health workforce emergency management plan, based on lessons learnt from the bushfires and the COVID-19 response. Ongoing consultations to seek feedback from health stakeholders will be critical to responding to future emergency scenarios. 

A recent rise of cases in Victoria is of concern and government will continue to work with state authorities and health stakeholders as this situation develops. Roundtable members were provided with updates on non-covid related health workforce programmes and progress made during the COVID-19 outbreak. Health workforce reform has continued during the COVID-19 response and the Department is now increasing capacity to drive these key projects forward. The National Rural Generalist Pathway has seen all seven jurisdictions sign agreements for the coordination units to assist rural generalist training. Two advisory groups will be established over the coming weeks to support the Department’s roll out of the Pathway, an Advisory Forum to consult with stakeholders, and a Jurisdictional Forum, to consult with jurisdictions.

The Annual update of the Distribution Priority Areas and District of Workforce Shortage for specialists will occur on 1 July 2020 and be available at DoctorConnect. The Distribution Advisory Group will continue to review the status of towns impacted and testing of the methodology used to distribute the workforce appropriately.

DoctorConnect

It was reiterated that the most up-to-date information on the Australian Government response to the coronavirus can be found at www.australia.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 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 22 May 2020 were:

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

Apologies:

  • Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association
  • Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses and Midwives
  • National Rural Health Student Network
  • National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Worker Association