About 7 million people (28 per cent of the population) live in rural Australia.5,6 Northern Australia covers those parts of Queensland and Western Australia above the Tropic of Capricorn and all of the Northern Territory. This region comprises 53 per cent of Australia’s land mass, with a population of over 1.3 million – 5.3 per cent of the national population – including over 200,000 Indigenous people, who make up 16 per cent of Northern Australia’s population.7
Northern Australia is sparsely populated, with approximately 800,000 people living on the periphery of five regional centres (Townsville, Cairns, Darwin, Rockhampton and Mackay).8 Only six other settlements have more than 10,000 residents. If using the Modified Monash (MM) Model, most of Northern Australia is classified as MM5–7 (small rural towns to very remote communities), with the exception of the small rural communities along the coast (MM5–6) and five large regional centres (MM2).9 Therefore, the northern half of Australia is one of the most sparsely populated subsets both of rural Australia and regions in the world. Figure 1 depicts the geographical location of Northern Australia.
Broadly, rural Australian industries, including agriculture and mining, contribute almost $400 billion per year to the value of the economy.10 Agriculture, fisheries and forestry, rural industries and resources generate at least 80 per cent of the country’s exports per year.11 Furthermore, 46 per cent ($107 billion) of the nation’s annual tourism expenditure occurs in regional Australia.12 This is a significant economic contribution and key to sustenance of international trade, stimulating economic wealth and facilitating employment. Hence, the health and wellbeing of people living in rural Australia (including Northern Australia) is essential to the broader economic productivity and development of the nation.
Yet rural Australians have, on average, a higher exposure to detrimental socioeconomic determinants of health (lower incomes and educational attainment, and fewer employment opportunities), health and behavioural risk factors, and a higher overall burden of disease.13 They are less able to access primary health care than those living in metropolitan areas and rely more heavily on the hospital sector.5 Furthermore, they experience poorer health outcomes, including higher death rates and reduced life expectancy.13
Because rural Australians have poorer access to local health care, including primary and specialist care, they are often required to travel long distances to receive care, compared to their metropolitan counterparts.5,14,15 The average socioeconomic circumstances of rural Australia also mean that there is a reduced ability to pay out-of-pocket expenses for health services. It is important that all Australians, no matter where they live, have access to the services they need to maximise their health and wellbeing, and hence have the opportunity to contribute to society (including economically) and live fulfilling lives. These factors are just as relevant to residents of Northern Australia as they are to people living in other rural areas of the country.