Editorial: Experiences of COVID-19 in rural health

  • Woman resting on lounge wearing mask
Gabrielle O'Kane
National Rural Health Alliance
Gabrielle O'Kane,
Chief Executive Officer

It is human nature to find some good in adversity, and the global pandemic is no different. There are now two dimensions to COVID-19 running in parallel: the execution of the vaccination program and the ongoing preparedness and response to the virus itself. In every community, town and regional centre across the country, doctors and health professionals are working hard to contend with the challenges of rolling out vaccines.

The Alliance and member organisations continue to feed information back to the Deputy Chief Medical Officer Professor Michael Kidd and the Department of Health on what is happening on the ground with training, workforce and clinical issues as the vaccination program is slowly scaled up. 

With regard to the spread of the virus, it is said that the rural sector dodged a bullet with no significant transmission hotspots outside metropolitan centres. Nonetheless, there have been substantial consequences for rural, regional and remote communities. Fortunately, there are many positive stories that deserve to be heard alongside the mainstream media scrutiny.

In our March edition, themed ‘the long tail of COVID-19’, Partyline explores the full range of human and structural responses going on across our communities. This includes clinical and emergency preparedness; entrepreneurial innovation and new flexible services; workforce training and variations; and demonstrations of determined resilience, such as these reflections from James Cooke University’s Peta-Ann Teag:

“We all willingly worked harder than ever to prepare our facilities, staff and ourselves to manage patients presenting with potential COVID. We attended many, many out-of-hours webinars to keep abreast of the issues (PPE being a notable recurring one) and emerging evidence.

"We helped keep our communities calm by providing consistent advice, face-to-face care wherever we could and telehealth where that was more appropriate. We managed children being off school, partners and family members being furloughed or made redundant, and supported colleagues who were anxious or frightened.

"We pivoted training programs, both undergraduate and postgraduate, to online formats and re-thought assessment modalities. The result of this has been quite remarkable – Australia is one of the safest countries in the world to be in at the moment. The deadly second wave in Victoria notwithstanding, ‘Team Australia’ has achieved an outcome that is the envy of many.”

The rest of her story explains that the biggest costs of success has been fatigue and burnout across the health workforce. Another negative impact has been the disruption to vital health programs such as transplant procedures and organ donation.

On the flipside, there has been rapid growth in telehealth capability and products available – and more people have learnt new skills and built confidence engaging in the digital world, either by design or necessity.

The focus on ‘long COVID’ has put a clinical, policy and research focus on primary health care. Clinical guidelines are continually being updated with learnings from around the world while researchers are avidly advancing the science around new strains of COVID and analysing the longer-term health impacts, as well as capturing the experiences of COVID-19 as an episode in history.

So here are some of the stories that make up the ‘experience’ of Australia’s rural health sector, and we especially thank the 10 Friends of the Alliance who have contributed to this edition.

Gabrielle O’Kane

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