Rural communities missing out on much-needed palliative care

  • Man and woman facing sunset

The unfortunate reality for people living in rural or regional Australia is you are far less likely to receive the palliative and end-of-life care you may need.

Most people in rural and regional Australia cannot access palliative care unless they travel long distances, often hundreds of kilometres, to access a service.

People who miss out are left to live with unrelieved symptoms and a lack of support to maintain function, quality of life and independence, and they are often unable to remain in their homes.

This regrettable situation forces many people in rural and regional areas to endure painful and traumatic end-of-life experiences. This is a burden often still carried by their loved ones years later.

Recently, David Gulpulil's death shone a light on these barriers, with his family expressing their anguish that he could not receive care and spend his final days on his Country as he wished. Sadly, this feeling will never be fully resolved for his family.

And, although rural communities are hit hardest by a lack of access to palliative care, across Australia it is conservatively estimated that 40,000 people who would benefit from palliative care treatment are missing out each year.

What is Palliative Care?

There are many misconceptions about palliative care.

It is commonly thought that palliative care is only delivered at the very end of someone's life. While this is certainly one situation when it is of benefit, it is not the only instance.

People can benefit from palliative care for months, or even years, as they manage life-limiting conditions like chronic illnesses. It can even be delivered alongside curative care.

Palliative care helps people live as well as they can for as long as they can, by managing pain and symptoms to maintain their quality of life.

It takes a person-centred approach, meaning every aspect is considered – including physical, emotional, spiritual or social wellbeing. And it is a family-centred model of care, meaning that family and carers can also receive practical and emotional support before and after the patient's death.

Rising demand

The need for palliative care is rising dramatically in Australia.

With the population growing and ageing, the need for palliative care services in Australia is expected to increase by 50 per cent between now and 2035, and double by 2050.

While there are excellent palliative care services spread throughout Australia, across parts of the health system there has been chronic underinvestment to meet the needs of the growing number of people who are diagnosed with a life-limiting illness each year.

If we don't get ahead of this now, more and more Australians face poor end-of-life experiences.

How can we improve access?

The first and most significant step to improving access to palliative care is making sure the sector is adequately funded.

Palliative Care Australia (PCA) is calling for sufficient levels of palliative care investment across Australia, including rural and regional locations.

We need increased palliative care staffing across health and aged care settings, and funding for clinicians to travel to communities requiring their services.

The Medical Benefits Schedule must be updated to support the work of palliative care nurse practitioners who can provide much-needed services in rural locations.

PCA is also calling for palliative care registered nurses to be placed in residential aged care facilities and additional palliative medicine trainee positions across Australia, particularly in rural and regional areas.

In the lead up to the election, PCA has laid out in its Roadmap 2022–2027 the funding and policy action that decision-makers must take to secure high-quality palliative care for all who need it. And we will continue to meet with all political parties to ensure palliative care is firmly on the agenda.

We are confident these efforts, backed by strong community support, will ensure all Australians receive the quality care they need when and where they need it.

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