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Wednesday, 22 August 2012
Page: 6134

Senator SIEWERT (Western AustraliaAustralian Greens Whip) (17:01): I present the report of the Community Affairs References Committee on health services and medical professionals in rural areas, together with the Hansard record of proceedings and documents presented to the committee.

Ordered that the report be printed.

Senator SIEWERT: I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

It is with great pleasure that I present this report. Upfront, I thank my colleagues on the committee. It was a very enjoyable experience—I think that I am allowed on this occasion to speak for all of us and say that—we enjoyed working together. I also thank the secretariat once again for the long hours and hard work that they have put into this report.

This report highlights, yet again, what I think many of us felt very strongly, and that is that there is inconsistent access to the medical workforce in rural and regional areas. In particular, access to medical specialists plummets outside major cities and falls to much lower levels outside large capitals. Also, we are aware of data that is showing higher disease burdens and poorer health outcomes for those living in rural and remote areas. While we acknowledge in our report that there has been work done, we believe, given that we have made 18 recommendations, that there is room for improvement and that more work needs to be done.

As I said, we made 18 recommendations; but in the rest of the short time I have available, other than recommending that people with an interest in this area get hold of the report and read it because there is some very useful information in there—read the recommendations—I point to a couple of key areas. One is that there has been a lot of talk about the classification system for incentives for medical professionals to work in regional areas. Again, the committee received a lot of criticism and input into that discussion and we made strong recommendations about the system needing to be improved—in fact, replaced and improved with some significant improvements.

One of the key areas that was also identified was the fact that the more specialised the medical profession has become—the more specialists we have—the more that has led to the detriment of rural health, because we do not have so many people going into rural generalist programs as in the past, or becoming rural generalists. We were presented with some excellent evidence around the success of programs—which I am sure my colleagues will talk about—and so we made some recommendations around those. We have also identified the need to look at the training places that are available regionally and we made some recommendations on those particular issues, to expand those, and we looked at how we can make improvements there.

We were also very clear that we talk not only about doctors. We are not just talking about doctors; we are talking about nurses and allied health professionals as well. One of the key recommendations that I think is very important—and I am aware that Senator Moore, in particular, will talk about it because it was her who was really focused on allied health and needing to get more focus there—is that a rural and regional allied health adviser be added to the adviser positions in the department.

We also talked about incentives for rural students to study medicine. The overwhelming evidence that we were presented with was very strong: if you want people to go and practice medicine and allied health in the bush then you should be supporting regional students and people from a rural background into studying medicine and as health professionals in particular. The evidence shows that if you come from the bush you have an affinity for the bush and a 'rural-mindedness'—I think that is the right word. We made some recommendations about how we can incentivise that. But there were also some other things we found that were barriers to ensuring more health professionals in rural and regional areas, and so our committee made a number of recommendations.

As I said, there are 18 recommendations. Of course, the Community Affairs Committee could not table a report without talking about the need to improve access to data. We found it quite difficult to pull together the different data sources so we have made some recommendations about data.

I think that this report will contribute significantly to the ongoing work to ensure that we get better health provision in rural and regional Australia.