Date published: 
20 March 2020
Media type: 
Statement
Audience: 
General public

The Minister for Regional Health, Regional Communications and Local Government, the Hon Mark Coulton MP, chaired a special roundtable teleconference with members of the Rural Health Stakeholder group.

Minister Coulton brought together key health stakeholders to discuss the Australian Government response to novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and priorities for regional, rural, and remote communities. The aim of discussions was to ensure a system- and nation-wide response, which means having strategies in place to protect regional Australians.

The past six months has seen unprecedented need for emergency responses from the Government, coordinated through the Department of Health. Most recently with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, which began in China and has since spread rapidly around the globe.

Minister Coulton reaffirmed his commitment to work through challenges faced by regional communities in response to the outbreak, and acknowledged the importance of providing up-to-date information to reassure communities of the significant work already underway.

The activation of the COVID-19 National Health Plan (COVID-19 Plan) was discussed, which is now in its Initial Targeted Response stage. The COVID-19 Plan, agreed by all governments, is an outline of measures undertaken now and as the outbreak continues. The plan describes pathways for governance and decision-making, roles and responsibilities, the stages of response, and the potential triggers that will prompt movement through the stages.

The COVID-19 Plan is available on the Department of Health’s website.

A number of senior Department of Health staff provided updates on the Commonwealth's response, and on activities to ensure Australians living in remote communities are supported in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak. 

Rural concerns

Stakeholders highlighted the need for forward planning, to boost the health workforce in areas of need, and to provide continuity of services if local health providers need to self-isolate. The impact on the health and welfare of health professionals working on the front line was also identified as a concern.

The importance of providing culturally appropriate services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians when assessing for COVID-19 was discussed, as well as how to respond quickly to remote communities in the event of an outbreak of the virus.

Access to personal protective equipment (PPE) for health workers was highlighted as a key concern. Whilst the Australian Government has provided Primary Health Networks and Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services with surgical masks and P2/N95 masks, the need to ensure appropriate distribution was discussed. A consistent approach is being taken to distribute these according to greatest need. 

Telehealth issues around electronic prescribing capability were discussed. The Australian Government will fast track the implementation of electronic prescribing to help protect those most at risk from exposure to COVID-19. Implementation will be fast tracked over the next six weeks.

The roundtable discussed new MBS telehealth items to provide essential services to patients at home during self-isolation or for people who are vulnerable to COVID-19. The need for flexibility in the roll out of the telehealth items was raised by stakeholders as a priority. It was highlighted that the most up-to-date information on available telehealth services through the MBS can be found at mbsonline.gov.au.

Key health messages

Key health messages for rural health care providers and rural communities were discussed. 

Minister Coulton encouraged participants to provide accurate information to colleagues and the community. They can access resources for health professionals, including aged care providers, pathology providers and healthcare managers on the Department's website. 

Access to information on infection control measures for rural frontline health professionals was also raised. The Department advised that an online training module is now available through the Department of Health website, to provide information on signs and symptoms of the virus and ways to protect yourself and others.

Minister Coulton highlighted the community health messaging, including the importance of good hygiene, social distancing and self-isolation to prevent the possible spread of the virus to other people. A national campaign has commenced across multiple platforms. See the health alert for further information on health messages.

 A Coronavirus Health Information Line operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week on
1800  020 080.

More than 19 stakeholder organisations participated in the meeting, including the Rural Doctors Association of Australia, Rural Health Workforce Australia, the National Rural Health Alliance, and Services for Australian Rural and Remote Health. Participants discussed the unique challenges faced by rural and remote communities, and the priority areas for action. 

Minister Coulton intends this special roundtable to convene on a regular basis, as the COVID-19 situation develops, to ensure the changing needs of regional, rural, and remote communities are met.

Participant list

Stakeholders participating in the special roundtable for the 20 March 2020 were:

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