It’s a pleasure to write my first editorial for Partyline in the capacity of Interim Chief Executive Officer of the National Rural Health Alliance.
It’s been an action packed few weeks here in Canberra having just wrapped up our annual gathering of Council members (the representatives of the Alliance’s 36 Member Bodies) – known as CouncilFest. At this year’s event, which ran on 10 – 12 September, around 45 delegates met to discuss the key health challenges facing people living in rural and remote Australia.
As this was my first CouncilFest, I can’t personally comment on how the meeting compared to previous events. I can, however, vouch for the tremendous energy and enthusiasm from participants, borne from a shared commitment to work together and make a collective impact on the issues affecting rural and remote health.
The statistics on this issue tell a stark story. The seven million people living in rural and remote Australia access medical services at half the rate; medical specialists at a third the rate; and mental health and allied health professionals at a quarter the rate of those in metropolitan Australia.
This lack of access translates into poor health outcomes, as evidenced by death rates that are up to one and a half times higher in remote areas, and rates of avoidable chronic illness which, in some parts of country Australia, are three times higher than in cities.
For me, a real highlight of this year’s CouncilFest was the breakfast at Parliament House, hosted by the Parliamentary Friends of Rural and Remote Health. The event featured presentations from Martin Laverty (Royal Flying Doctor Service), Katherine Burchfield (Royal Far West) and Chris Moorhouse (Chair of Friends of the Alliance). The breakfast was very well attended by Members of Parliament from all parts of the political spectrum and was followed by a raft of receptive and productive meetings with key Parliamentarians, including the Minister for Health.
In terms of outcomes, the CouncilFest saw our Member Bodies reaffirm strong support for the urgent development of a bipartisan, cross-jurisdictional new National Rural Health Strategy. Consensus was also reached on the need for such a strategy to be supported by robust health access standards.
Access emerged as a central theme across the three days of discussions. People in rural and remote Australia need affordable, acceptable and appropriate access – not just to health services but to all the elements that underpin their effectiveness, such as reliable high speed internet, affordable and nutritious food, and health promotion and wellness activities. The evidence is that about 30 per cent of the health outcomes that country people experience is impacted by difficulties in accessing affordable, acceptable and appropriate health services.
Another crucial issue that emerged from the meeting was the clear need for the Alliance to do better in engaging and supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Member Bodies and the communities that they represent. All delegates agreed that the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at CouncilFest is essential. The Alliance simply cannot do justice to rural and remote health without the direct involvement of Indigenous people and the organisations that work to improve health outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
The Alliance is committed to strengthening our advocacy and focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health. A key component of this will be the development of a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) which will clearly identify our commitment and what we will do to contribute to improving health outcomes for Indigenous people. An objective of the RAP will be identifying what we need to do to provide a culturally safe environment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and our organisational partners.
In closing, I’d like to express my sincere thanks to all the Members of Parliament who took the time to meet with us and listen to our ideas and proposals for the future. I’d also like to thank our Board, all members of the Alliance and staff, who contributed to making CouncilFest 2017 so amazing and memorable.