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

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

Minister Coulton highlighted the success of tracing through the Government’s COVIDSafe app. The Minister spoke of a particular asymptomatic COVID-positive case identified, preventing community transmission through swift contact tracing. The Minister noted that while COVIDSafe download rates were positive, having more Australians using the app will improve its effectiveness.

Minister Coulton reiterated the risk of complacency as states and territories relax restrictions. When compared with international examples, Australia has done extremely well in combating the virus spread and is now well prepared for future outbreaks. All Australians need to maintain their stringent personal hygiene and social distancing practises.

Senior Department of Health staff provided updates on the Commonwealth’s 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 respiratory clinics, with 116 GP-led respiratory clinics operating in conjunction with 340 state-run fever clinics, nationwide. More than 50 clinics were now operating in regional locations.

Stakeholders were updated on remote point of care testing programme with 56 sites confirmed by the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Group on COVID-19. The first test occurred on 21 May 2020 in the Kimberly region of WA. The programme prevented the emergency retrieval of two suspected cases, with rapid test results indicating negative results for COVID-19. Reducing unnecessary emergency aeromedical retrievals will improve the capacity of these services to respond during potential outbreaks.

Telehealth services continue to enable the provision of health services to rural communities during pandemic lockdown measures. Department officials provided an update on the uptake of telehealth items, with 10.9 million services delivered so far and more than $500 million in benefits paid. The success of this programme is being reviewed as part of reform into telehealth services.

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 Government is particularly mindful of the pandemic’s impact on the training pipeline for medical students and junior doctors. Work continues to identify flexible response options, such as those implemented for the Australian General Practice Training (AGPT) programme. An AGPT COVID-19 Support Policy was rolled out on 14 May 2020 to Regional Training Organisations (RTOs) and other stakeholders. The policy provides increased flexibility for registrars affected by the pandemic to access extensions of training time, leave and transfers under the AGPT programme.  The Support Policy also allows RTOs to provide salary support funding for registrars in AMSs whose training time has been extended due to exam delays.

AGPT Program COVID-19 Support Policy 2020

Stakeholders were updated on a special COVID-19 meeting of the Medical Workforce Reform Advisory Committee, which was held on Tuesday 19 May 2020 to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on medical training for jurisdictions, colleges and students and to identify potential issues and solutions going forward. The Department will also meet with Home Affairs to discuss a range of migration and visa issues, such as what options are available to medical students caught overseas who wish to train and work in Australia.

The Department has begun 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 workforce stakeholders will be critical to responding to future emergency scenarios. 

The group was also advised of funding for a Mental Health First Aid online training course for medical students. Funding of $690,000 will be provided to Medical Deans Australia and New Zealand (MDANZ) to support medical students with basic training in mental health first aid. The training, developed by Mental Health First Aid Australia, aims to give students the skills and awareness to monitor the health and wellbeing of fellow students and themselves.

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 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 continues to develop.

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
  • National Rural Health Student Network
  • Pharmacy Guild of Australia
  • 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 Rural Health Education Network
  • CRANAplus
  • Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association
  • 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:

  • Indigenous Allied Health Australia
  • Australian Dental Association
  • Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association
  • Royal Flying Doctor Service
  • National Rural Health Alliance
  • Rural Health Workforce Australia
  • Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses and Midwives