As I write this article, the appointment of Australia's first National Rural Health Commissioner is imminent.
The Rural Doctors’ Association of Australia (RDAA) has long advocated for such a Commissioner. The commencement of the inaugural Commissioner should herald an exciting period of increased focus on the rural healthcare system in this country.
Ideally, the Commissioner's focus will be on delivering to the bush more healthcare professionals of every type; ensuring the future sustainability of the rural healthcare system; and ensuring the delivery of a wider range of local health services to rural communities.
Having the Commissioner in place should also ensure that the focus on rural healthcare issues, and the rollout of solutions, can transcend the three-year election cycle.
With a Commissioner progressing the rural health agenda, there should be less reliance on individual governments developing their own solutions from scratch within single Parliamentary terms — rather, the Commissioner will be able to act as the medium through which solutions are progressed (hopefully seamlessly) across successive governments.
The shortage of health professionals of all disciplines is a key factor impacting on health service provision and access in many rural and remote locations — and the rural doctor workforce shortage has bitten hard.
To this end, RDAA has been pleased that the Federal Government has set an early priority for the Commissioner to progress the implementation of a National Rural Generalist Pathway.
Again, this is something for which RDAA has advocated actively over many years.
This Pathway would provide a supported and structured path to deliver to rural and remote Australia more of the next generation of doctors with the range of advanced skills that are needed in rural communities, where, largely due to the tyranny of distance, medical care is often provided in isolation.
Importantly, the advanced skills offered through a supported Pathway would cover both procedural areas (obstetrics, anaesthetics, general surgery and emergency medicine) as well as non-procedural areas, such as advanced mental healthcare and Indigenous healthcare.
But quite appropriately, this will not be the only focus area for the Commissioner.
In addition to shortages in the rural medical workforce, there are also significant shortages in the nursing workforce and in allied healthcare in rural and remote areas. Shortages in any one of these areas can impact on the capacity of the whole healthcare team to provide the optimal range of health services to their rural community.
Indeed, the presence in a rural town of a supportive and viable multidisciplinary rural healthcare team can also be a significant factor in whether rural doctors and other health professionals choose to remain in their rural or remote community, or leave for another location.
The RDAA fully supports the need for the Commissioner's future focus to be wider than simply delivering more doctors to the bush, and ensuring they have the advanced skills they need to work confidently there.
It will be critical for the Commissioner to work actively for strategies that deliver more of all types of health professionals to rural and remote Australia.
We are keenly anticipating the commencement of the inaugural Commissioner, and very much look forward to working with the appointee, as well as continuing to work with the Federal Government, to lock in a great future for the rural healthcare system in Australia.