Digital connectivity key to rural health

  • Telecommunications infrastructure in the bush is vital to delivering quality telehealth services. Photo: Shutterstock
    Telecommunications infrastructure in the bush is vital to delivering quality telehealth services. Photo: Shutterstock
NSW Rural Doctors Network
Richard Colbran, CEO

In this digital era – where social lives are lived online, entertainment is consumed online, and ‘life administration’ is managed online – being able to access quality and reliable telecommunications services is essential to navigate life.

Yet where you live is the main indicator of the level of telecommunications services you can expect to receive.

For us, and other organisations that contribute to and participate in the employment of Australia’s rural health workforce, digital connectivity plays a vital important role in both recruitment and retention.

For more than 30 years, NSW Rural Doctors Network (RDN) has been recruiting and retaining health professionals to remote and rural communities using a whole-of-life approach to health workforce recruitment.

What does this mean? It means we look to enable a health professional’s capability professionally, personally, emotionally and physically. Integral to our approach is considering the families and partners of health professionals and ensuring that our recruitment is a match for the whole family. Where a health professional has stability at home, the ability to remain and thrive in their community is enhanced.

RDN has many examples of recruitment success flourishing where digital connectivity has been assured. Conversely, we have examples of health professionals either not accepting a role, or accepting and leaving a short time later, because digital connectivity is weak or in some cases, impossible.

The 2018 Report of the Regional Telecommunications Independent Review Committee recognises that “good connectivity is … a key factor in attracting and retaining people to rural and remote areas. Younger people and professional workers in particular are profoundly influenced by the availability of technology when they are considering where to work and live.”

The Report goes on to recognise that regional Australia has the potential to be an ‘innovative economic powerhouse’ with more investment in infrastructure, saying that access to good quality telecommunications underpins a strong base of health services, education, employment and essential infrastructure, all of which are attractive to the long-term retention of people in regional areas.

The role of digital connectivity in the recruitment and retention of rural health professionals is so important that it is not a stretch to claim that the lack of consistent digital connectivity is a barrier to health service access in Australia.

In recent years, telehealth has assisted remote, rural and regional communities to access better healthcare services in a timelier fashion. This an exciting development in providing health services and information over distance, allowing people outside of metropolitan areas to access knowledge and services previously inaccessible unless they travelled, usually at great cost and inconvenience. As an organisation striving for equity in healthcare access, RDN supports telehealth and the opportunities it offers. However, we believe it will not reach its full potential until better quality telecommunications infrastructure is in place.

Australia’s Rural Workforce Agencies for health collaborate at the national level to strive for sustained success in rural health workforce recruitment and retention and work with various government and non-government stakeholders who are in positions to support improvement in rural digital connectivity.

RDN is grateful to the National Rural Health Alliance for its continued pursuit of digital connectivity as a key issue for improvement in rural health. There can be no health services without a health workforce and digital connectivity should be considered an enabling factor for the recruitment and retention of health professionals to our remote and rural communities.

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