Supporting research to address healthcare needs of rural Australians

  • Group of medical professionals
By
Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care
Jenny Fraser,
Jordane Malaterre,
Ruth Webster,
Masha Somi
and Phillip Gould
Issue
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Rural, regional and remote areas are home to almost one-third of Australia’s population, who have significantly worse health outcomes and shorter life expectancies than people living in urban centres.

While health and medical research can improve health outcomes, rural practitioners and researchers face barriers to taking part in research due to distance, workforce capacity, and lack of training or resources.

To bridge this gap, rural practitioners and researchers are being encouraged to explore dedicated funding available through the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF).

Established by the Australian Government in 2015, the MRFF is a sustainable source of research funding to support health and medical research and innovation. It operates as an endowment fund and reached maturity at $20 billion in July 2020. From 2022–23, and over the next 10 years, the MRFF will invest $650 million annually into life-saving research.

The MRFF Strategy and Priorities, set by the Australian Medical Research Advisory Board, provide direction for the Australian Government’s research funding. The 2022–24 MRFF priorities acknowledge the challenges of conducting, and putting into practice, research in rural, regional and remote areas. To address this, a range of MRFF grant opportunities have been designed with a rural focus.

Since its inception, through to May 2022, the MRFF has invested:

  • $201.3 million on 28 grants with a focus on rural, regional or remote health research
  • $36.9 million on 21 grants conducted in rural, regional or remote areas.

As part of this funding, the Government has invested $124.4 million to make sure patients can access clinical trials where they live through the 2019 Rural, Regional and Remote Clinical Trial Enabling Infrastructure grant opportunity.

Australians in rural, regional and remote areas face barriers to taking part in clinical trials, including distance, cultural difference, geographical isolation and workforce capacity. Access to clinical trials is important because patients living in these areas have poorer health outcomes and often miss out on access to new products and treatments.

The Rural, Regional and Remote Clinical Trial Enabling Infrastructure Program seeks to promote equitable access by:

  • improving facilities, equipment, services and systems in rural, regional and remote Australia
  • reducing the burden, costs and risks for patients and their families, related to clinical trial participation
  • increasing research capacity.

One of the grantees under this grant opportunity, the Australian Teletrial Program, brings clinical trials closer to the homes of rural, regional and remote patients by setting up satellite sites that are linked to primary sites in urban areas using telehealth.

The MRFF is committed to ongoing funding for research in rural, regional and remote areas. For example, the 2022 Rapid Applied Research Translation Grant Opportunity (which is currently open for applications) aims to help the rapid translation of research evidence into clinical practice. Stream 2, in particular, focuses on research based in rural areas and specifies requirements for the lead organisation, Chief Investigator A and more than 50 per cent of all Chief Investigators to be primarily based in a rural, regional or remote area.

Another example is the 2022 Clinical Trials Activity Grant Opportunity which is also open for applications. Stream 3 of this grant opportunity aims to support the conduct of a clinical trial that reduces inequities in health outcomes by addressing the specific health and healthcare needs that are of priority for people in regional, rural and remote communities.

More is needed to close the health gap for rural, regional and remote communities and the MRFF is supporting research and innovation towards this aim.

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