Change and innovation for rural health in Western Australia: a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic

  • Dr Emma Keeler at her desk

Dr Emma Keeler

WA Primary Health Alliance
Kate Cross, Country Operations Manager - South

The COVID-19 pandemic has without a doubt reshaped healthcare in Australia, particularly in rural and remote areas. Along with changes to the way healthcare looks, digital and health policy innovations have been fast-tracked to support healthcare delivery while social distancing. These rapidly changing and challenging times have revealed a silver lining for the healthcare sector – collaboration, innovation and opportunity.

WA Primary Health Alliance (WAPHA), as part of the Australian Government’s national Primary Health Networks program, has been working to support general practices, pharmacies and funded service providers across Western Australia to respond to the pandemic. As an organisation, we quickly mobilised to provide much needed support and increase the capacity of the rural health system, particularly general practice.

Our seven regional teams support primary healthcare organisations servicing an impressive 2.5 million square kilometres of regional Western Australia. Actively involved in the COVID-19 response planning in each region to ensure an integrated regional response, our teams, through their trusted relationships and partnerships, are facilitating greater connections and collaboration between WA Country Health Service and the primary healthcare sector through their established networks. 

The expansion of telehealth services and bulk-billing incentives is helping regional and remote communities maintain access to healthcare. General practice and other health services have had to quickly adapt to a huge increase in telehealth consultations and new ways of communicating and keeping up to date with the latest information. Just last month, close to 100 healthcare workers attended the Wheatbelt Annual Immunisation Update via videoconference, an update traditionally held in-person.

WA Primary Health Alliance’s focus has been to support the primary healthcare sector navigate COVID-19 and to continue to provide the best care to their patients and clients, by:  

  • Distributing PPE to general practices and pharmacies across Western Australia
  • Partnering with five WA medical and health agencies to produce a daily newsletter for general practice
  • Providing extensive resources and support through Practice Assist, including webinars and an online general practice information pack
  • Enabling access to a telehealth platform, with over 140 general practices registering
  • Facilitating the establishment of Commonwealth-endorsed GP Respiratory Clinics, and
  • Keeping funded service providers up-to-date and assisting them in maintaining provision of service to regional WA.

“The threat from COVID-19 has been widespread, especially in rural communities, with concerns about supplies, stretch of resources and isolation. However, it has highlighted the pivotal role of general practice in supporting, educating and protecting our patients. The sudden and widespread availability of telephone and telehealth for general practice has been very successful and is a good adjunct to face-to-face care. The rapid roll-out and administration of flu and pneumococcal vaccinations was highly successful. WAPHA has been instrumental in assisting access to information and resources during this time’

Dr Emma Keeler, Esperance Family Practice

They say every cloud has a silver lining, and COVID-19 certainly does. We are seeing rapid change, collaboration and innovation in the healthcare space as a result of the pandemic, providing an opportunity to explore flexibility in the way healthcare is delivered. This may result in regional Western Australians being better connected to essential healthcare services into the future. Coordinated primary care is a priority and we will continue to support general practices, pharmacies and funded service providers to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak and adjust to the changes in how they deliver care.

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