Australia is one of the most-vaccinated countries in the world, with more than 95 per cent of people over the age of 16 having received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
But the pace and coverage of the vaccine rollout has not been the same for all Australians.
For the seven million people living in rural, regional and remote areas, the vaccine rollout has been slower and inconsistent.
The vaccine rollout experience in these communities is indicative of the bigger picture of gaps and frustrations they face every day when it comes to accessing the latest medicines, treatments and vaccines – something that people in cities and major centres take for granted.
Where you live should not be an obstacle to having a long and healthy life.
However, the sad reality is that Australians who live outside the major cities have poorer health outcomes and higher rates of hospitalisations.
The situation is even worse in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
The lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic provide us with a unique opportunity to improve access to life-saving and life-changing medicines for all Australians, no matter their circumstances and no matter where they live.
A study by Medicines Australia has shown that, when it comes to accessing new and innovative medicines – and getting them to the people who need them when they need them – Australia falls dramatically behind other similar countries in the OECD.
In Australia, only 20 per cent of new medicines are reimbursed (and made available to patients) within six months and just two per cent are reimbursed within three months. Comparable countries reimburse 60 per cent of their new medicines within six months. In the top three OECD countries, 60 per cent are reimbursed within three months.
Slow access puts our nation and communities at risk of future health crises and pandemics.
Regional communities are at greater risk – and there is a very human face to this inequity.
David Lockwood is in his fifties and lives in regional New South Wales. He is the fulltime carer for his mother. David also lives with neuroendocrine cancer, which was the seventh most diagnosed cancer in Australia in 2021.
David had spent nearly three long, frustrating years bouncing between different medical experts and received two misdiagnoses before finally receiving a correct diagnosis of neuroendocrine cancer.
He is now four years into his treatment journey. David spends a lot of his time in his car travelling from his home in the country to Sydney for regular scans and treatment.
Because of where he lives, David has limited options for receiving the required medical treatment in his local area, so he has no choice but to travel to Sydney. Specialised cancer centres are rare in regional communities, despite data showing that people living in rural, regional and remote areas are more likely to be diagnosed with cancer than those living in the cities.
For other cancer patients, like David, geographical location causes unnecessary delays in receiving the right diagnosis and the right treatment. They also face the additional financial costs and time burdens of travelling.
When I first met David, I was blown away by his ability to keep fighting for the treatment he deserves. I was in awe of his passion for raising awareness so that others do not have to experience the same long, unnecessary delays.
People like David should not have to fight this hard to receive the right medicine or treatment.
Right now, there are hundreds of exciting discoveries and medical innovations ready for patients to use, including preventative treatments for serious diseases like cancer.
But many of the latest medicines spend months, and sometimes years, caught up in Australian regulatory systems.
On average, complex oncology products have some of the longest waiting periods. They can take between 125 and 1,144 days before they are listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and made available to Australian patients.
Medicines Australia is advocating for the Australian Government to commit to a plan to improve Australia’s ranking in the time to access medicines.
We now have an incredible opportunity to implement improvements that will see Australians having timely access to the latest vaccines, medicines and treatments.
In its pre-Budget submission, Medicines Australia is urging the government to take action to lift Australia, by 2027, into the top five of OECD nations for speed of access to new life-saving medicines. Australia currently sits in the top 20. This is not good enough.
We must plan now for the future health of the nation – for the expected and the unexpected. COVID-19 has shown us that futureproofing is a priority.
Proper investment in quicker access to new medicines will deliver better health outcomes for all Australians. Regional Australia will not get left behind. People like David will get the medicines they need when they need them. They deserve no less.