Improving health outcomes for Indigenous Australians will require strengthening the capacity of the healthcare system in a number of ways. As Australia’s most frequently accessed and accessible health destinations, community pharmacies are a willing partner and have an important role to play in this process.
Accessibility is an issue for all Australians in remote communities, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in particular. In remote areas where health services are scarce, improving accessibility will go a long way in ensuring that patients have an easy interface with primary health care to treat chronic conditions.
There are more than 6,000 pharmacies nationwide and two-thirds of Australians outside of capital cities live within 2.5 kilometres of a pharmacy. Many regional communities without access to a general practitioner (GP) have access to a pharmacy. Leveraging the accessibility of pharmacies to better connect patients with primary care presents an exciting opportunity to provide patients in regional Australia with better access to health care.
One example of services that could be offered to leverage pharmacies’ accessibility is the scope-of-practice reforms currently taking place in states like New South Wales and Queensland. These reforms will greatly expand patients’ access to everyday health care. In these states, patients can now access treatment for uncomplicated urinary tract infections from their pharmacist – freeing up GPs to address more complicated matters and offering a point of care for areas where there are no GPs at all. In New South Wales alone, over one thousand patients have accessed these services since they began in May. Coming reforms that will see patients able to access treatment from their pharmacists for a range of everyday health conditions will even further improve this access.
However, it will be important to improve not just the accessibility but also the quality of health care to secure better health outcomes for regional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. One important aspect in achieving a higher standard of health care is improving the representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the healthcare workforce. Under-representation impedes the ability to provide appropriate care to those communities. Under-representation can also limit trust between communities and healthcare providers, and results in poorer cultural awareness.
Pharmacy, like other health professions, suffers from a disappointing under-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers. Addressing this disparity, and improving the diversity of the pharmacy workforce, will strengthen the capacity of community pharmacies to provide quality health care to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. A positive step in this direction is the Symbion and Guild Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Student Scholarship Initiative, which commenced this year. It will see Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander pharmacy students provided with financial and professional support throughout their studies and into their early career.
Community pharmacies have unique strengths in providing health care to regional, rural and remote communities due to their accessibility and embeddedness in communities. By leveraging and building on these strengths, we can improve health outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in regional Australia.