Media event date: 
3 April 2020
Date published: 
10 April 2020
Media type: 
Statement
Audience: 
General public

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

Minister Coulton reinforced the importance of providing up to date and accurate information to regional, rural and remote communities regarding the work that is underway to manage the response. 

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 noted the strong progress in the roll out of the Government’s $206.7 million commitment to establish up to 100 GP respiratory clinics over the next four weeks. Clinics were now open in seven locations, with contracts issued to 34 locations in total. The first rural regional clinic has opened in Emerald, QLD.

It was noted that the purpose of the GP respiratory clinics is to divert people with mild to moderate respiratory symptoms (fever, cough, sore throat, and other respiratory symptoms) away from hospitals and general practices.  This is a vital part of the Government’s strategy to keep the health system functioning – enabling capacity in hospitals for people with severe injuries and disease, and general practices for people with chronic conditions and minor injuries and ailments.

The Department advised it was in discussion with the Royal Flying Doctor Service, Careflight and other providers about how they might assist with primary health care support in rural and remote areas of Australia. This also includes retrievals, pre-positioning of personal protective equipment and insertion of primary health care professionals in the event of an outbreak in a remote area.

It was noted that the Government has provided $57.8 million as part of the $2.4 billion Primary Care Response package to develop a specific strategy for remote communities. This strategy is being rolled out alongside the GP respiratory clinics initiative and in close consultation with Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services. The Management Plan for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Populations endorsed by the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee is available on the Health website.

Participants were provided an update on efforts to secure personal protective equipment (PPE) for the National Medical Stockpile, noting the global shortage. Further information on PPE for health care professionals can be found on the Health website.

The Roundtable reiterated its appreciation for the Government’s flexibility for health workers in expanding telehealth, e-prescribing and home delivery of medicines.

Participants noted the unprecedented pressures on the rural health workforce, including nurses, doctors, pharmacists and allied health, and expressed their collective disappointment at the aggressive behaviour some, particularly pharmacists, had experienced from members of the public during the outbreak.

Stakeholders welcomed the Government’s $74 million mental health package, including support for health workers at the frontline of the pandemic. This package includes a dedicated mental health and wellbeing program for frontline health workers, which will be delivered through online and phone services. This service will give frontline workers support when and where they need it.

Update on workforce matters

The Australian Government considers it a priority to support the health workforce on the front lines of the pandemic response. Health professionals are not immune to COVID-19 infection and like the rest of the community will be required to self-isolate if they test positive. A surge workforce may be required in these circumstances to support rural communities. The Department of Health is working closely with jurisdictions, training and accreditation organisations, and other key stakeholders to identify and prepare surge workforce options.

The option of health professionals with recently lapsed registrations as a potential surge workforce was also discussed. The Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency announced on 2 April 2020 a pandemic sub-register to support return to work of doctors, nurses, midwives and pharmacists who were non-practicing or previously held registration in past 3 years.

An update was provided to the group on the Australian Government funding that is being provided to the Australian College of Nursing to provide a free online training course, known as the REFRESHER program, to eligible Registered Nurses. Due to the significant interest in the program, funding has been increased from $1 million to $2.5 million. As at 3 April 2020, the REFRESHER program has had 3948 applicants, 3000 enrolments and 90 have completed training. In addition to this, the Government has finalised arrangements for additional online intensive care training to upskill up to 20,000 nurses across Australia. Further information about the REFRESHER program for Registered Nurses can be found on the Australian College of Nursing website.

One of the issues raised was around arrangements for the health workforce who need to cross state borders to provide services, such as GPs, nurses and pharmacists.

Members of the teleconference also stressed the importance of rural communities not becoming complacent as the infection rates begin to slow. Hygiene and prevention strategies still need to be followed during this period. 

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.

Members agreed that the next meeting will occur on Friday 17 April. Minister Coulton reiterated 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 3 April 2020 were:

  • Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association
  • Pharmaceutical Society of Australia
  • Australian Medical Association
  • Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine
  • National Rural Health Alliance
  • Rural Doctors Association of Australia
  • Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses and Midwives
  • Rural Health Workforce Australia
  • Rural Workforce Agencies Network & Health Workforce Queensland
  • 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
  • Australian Rural Health Education Network
  • CRANAplus
  • National Rural Health Commissioner

Apologies

  • Royal Flying Doctor Service
  • Federation of Rural Australian Medical Educators
  • Indigenous Allied Health Australia
  • National Rural Health Student Network
  • Allied Health Professions Australia
  • Australian Dental Association