Where health and climate issues collide

  • Elderly woman with younger woman in medical facility
Consumers Health Forum
Leanne Wells, Chief Executive Officer

Nowhere in Australia is the impact of climate change on health more stark than what we are now witnessing in rural Australia.

Rural communities, already struggling with poorer access to the full range of health services enjoyed by their urban counterparts, are now further strained with the ravages on people’s health care and services wrought by the fires.  Damaged lives and infrastructure have made the state of care more fragile.

We have praised the admirable efforts of GPs, nurses, pharmacists and other health practitioners to maintain community-based services in the face of infrastructure and communications breakdowns.

The plight of rural populations battling aggravated chronic conditions including mental health issues has revealed how vulnerable health services can become, and more likely so as climate change gathers pace. The health response by the Australian Government to the bushfires, including the $76 million to boost mental health services and supports across other areas including medical and pharmacy services has been welcome.

However the recent experience underlines how routine access to primary health care services in rural communities is likely to become ever more vital. We need to be thinking of effective longer- term changes to ensure access to care will meet the future challenges.

The Consumers Health Forum (CHF) has for some years advocated for a revamped health system to empower consumers and community-centred arrangements that, by spurring people actively to manage and enhance their own health, will boost national both physical and fiscal wellbeing.

The demand for responsive primary health care arrangements in rural and regional communities has grown with the intensity of the bush fires cutting off power, transport and even phone links. In communities large and small, we will be best served by local health arrangements that are centred around the consumer rather than providers.

Such change requires organisation and challenges to existing culture. Our vision for the 21st century is to encourage government support for consumer and community leadership to shape collaboration with providers in developing more effective health care systems.

CHF has established a Rural and Remote Health Special Interest Group to ensure we include the voices of rural and remote consumers in all our policy and advocacy work. Consumer participation in this group will help identify what matters to consumers, where improvement can be made and contribute to the cultural changes needed among health professionals, health managers, health services and the wider community that are needed for sustainable improvements in rural and remote health.

We have proposed to government measures to improve primary and preventive care such as:

  • targeted support for doctors and nurses to educate patients with chronic conditions to actively manage their own health and to equip those at risk of chronic illness to lower that risk; and
  • supporting health providers to engage effectively with parents to support healthy early childhood development, along with a primary health care strategy spearheaded by patient and family-centred health care home arrangements.

It is not as if Minister for Health, Greg Hunt, is ignoring the need for change in health care.  He has proposed the creation of ten-year plans for primary health care, prevention and mental health and has tasked expert committees to actively work these up. We need to add responses to the public health emergency triggered by climate change to implementation plans.

Australia has 21st century knowledge and capabilities. Now we need more than ever to implement what’s within reach for good health throughout Australia.

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