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Wednesday, 8 March 2000
Page: 14166

Mrs GASH (3:00 PM) —My question is addressed to the Minister for Health and Aged Care. Would the minister inform the House of the latest initiatives by the government to improve health services for women in rural areas.

Dr WOOLDRIDGE (Minister for Health and Aged Care) —I thank the honourable member for her question. The Commonwealth has long funded a number of rural programs. More recently we have funded these under the public health outcome funding agreements such as programs for breasts, cervical cancer screening, alternative birthing services and programs related to genital mutilation. In recent times we have funded a number of new programs that are of particular benefit to women living in rural Australia. Last week I was in Derby with the member for Kalgoorlie launching a visiting female general practitioner program for rural communities. This idea first came up about two years ago at a breakfast I was at, with the now Deputy Prime Minister, for women in agriculture. One thing that was put to me very strongly was that, in many rural communities, females never have the chance to consult a female general practitioner. This can be particularly difficult when there are sensitive personal issues or health issues. In response to this concern, we are funding a visiting scheme to 150 rural communities around Australia, mostly in what the Bureau of Statistics calls RAMA 3 to 5, but also some in RAMA 6 to 7. We are auspicing it under the Royal Flying Doctor Service, and it will for the very first time give a very large number of women in rural Australia access to a female GP from time to time.

Two weeks ago I was in Mackay with the member for Dawson and met a local surgeon, Peter Donnelly, who told me of research that showed that, if a woman delays seeking treatment for breast cancer for three to six months, it actually increases the risk of death from that breast cancer by 10 per cent. One of the problems that rural women have with breast cancer is in getting all the specialists together in one spot. This is something that is taken for granted in city teaching hospitals, where there are multidisciplinary teams. I was launching a trial there that we are running in three locations around Australia. One is in Mackay, the second is in western Victoria and the third is in central New South Wales. We are trying to do two things. First, we are seeing how we can best give country women with breast cancer the full range of services that people in the city would expect—counselling, reconstruction and a whole range of treatment options; and, secondly, we are using technology to put together all the specialists in a virtual manner so that we can actually save time in initiating treatment. I am very optimistic about these trials.

The government has also funded the Jean Hailes Foundation in Melbourne, which focuses on research, particularly on menopause. This funding has enabled them to start an outreach service into rural Australia for the first time. Recently they held a women's health forum in Broken Hill, where 300 women attended, and they were able to provide intensive training for 30 local health professionals on the latest research and treatment concerning women's health issues.

Finally, on behalf of the government, I would like to acknowledge the enthusiastic participation of women from rural Australia to the regional Australian summit, convened by the Deputy Prime Minister last year. In the health services area, for example, the women involved made a very significant contribution to its overall success.