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Wednesday, 13 November 2013
Page: 206

Medical Workforce

Senator BOSWELL (Queensland) (14:54): My question is to the Assistant Minister for Health—her first question—and I congratulate her on her new position on the frontbench and I say it is well deserved. Will the minister inform the Senate what plans the government has to address the doctor shortages in parts of Northern Queensland? How will the government target medical graduates to help address the maldistribution of doctors in these areas?

Senator NASH (New South WalesDeputy Leader of The Nationals in the Senate and Assistant Minister for Health) (14:54): I note Senator Boswell's longstanding interest in health issues in regional Queensland. The coalition has a very strong track record on investments in infrastructure, in the workforce and in training to meet the health challenges regional, remote and Indigenous Australians face. In health these have included the establishment of rural clinical schools, expanded medical training in regional and rural areas and more allied health services and medical specialist outreach assistance.

Senator Boswell would be well aware of the rural clinical school campuses in Bundaberg and Rockhampton associated with the University of Queensland and also in Mackay and Cairns associated with JCU; however poorer access to health services persists in rural and remote areas like North Queensland compared with metropolitan areas in Australia, and not only for private sector health services.

The prediction is that, providing we maintain our current intake of overseas-trained doctors, the supply of GPs will be in balance with demand in around 2025. But of course we know there is a significant maldistribution of numbers, and that is the key area that needs to be addressed in terms of providing services for rural and regional areas.

The previous coalition government made a significant investment in new medical schools, and those medical graduates are now starting to make their way into the workforce. They will make an important contribution, but we need to make sure that we continue appropriate initiatives to address the maldistribution. As a first step in addressing the problem, the government will provide $40 million over the forward estimates to support up to 100 additional intern places each year in private hospitals and non-traditional settings during the current period of growth of student numbers. I note in contrast the previous Labor government had a severe detachment from what was needed in our regional communities.

Senator BOSWELL (Queensland) (14:57): Mr President, I ask a supplementary question: can the minister advise the Senate what plans the government has to provide training and professional development opportunities to medical students, GPs and health workers as other incentives for them to stay in Northern Queensland and other regions across the country?

Senator NASH (New South WalesDeputy Leader of The Nationals in the Senate and Assistant Minister for Health) (14:57): On this side we certainly recognise that encouraging medical students to both study and later work in rural areas has immediate benefits not only for the local communities but in the long term it is likely to encourage more graduates to practise outside the cities.

We are going to commit $13.4 million to provide an additional 500 scholarships for nurses and allied health professionals, to expand to 600 scholarships provided each year to allied health students and allow more rural allied health workers to take leave on top of the 100 allied health locum placements provided each year.

The government also undertook to invest $119 million to double the Practice Incentive Program teaching payment for GPs who provide teaching opportunities, with rural and remote GPs receiving an additional benefit. We will also provide $52.5 million for infrastructure expansion for medical practices, which is particularly helpful in our rural and regional communities.

Senator BOSWELL (Queensland) (14:58): Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. Will the minister inform the Senate how the government intends to address poor health and poor life expectancy in the more remote areas, particularly in Indigenous communities in Northern Australia?

Senator NASH (New South WalesDeputy Leader of The Nationals in the Senate and Assistant Minister for Health) (14:58): The health and wellbeing of Indigenous Australians is a key priority for this government as we recognise that many factors intersect to produce poor health and poor life expectancy for Indigenous people. That is why we are taking a new approach to Indigenous disadvantage, moving most of the responsibility for Indigenous programs into the Prime Minister's own department, with some health policy and service delivery remaining with me.

This approach will ensure Indigenous affairs has the full focus of the Prime Minister and across-government implementation. The Prime Minister has also appointed a Minister for Indigenous Affairs—my very good colleague Senator Nigel Scullion—at cabinet level, reflecting this government's commitment to making real improvements to the wellbeing of Indigenous Australians.

We will endeavour to break the cycle of disadvantage by working closely with the states and territories, Indigenous communities and other organisations, including health stakeholders. I look forward to playing a key part in this new approach.