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Thursday, 21 June 2018
Page: 3622

Rural and Regional Health Services


Senator WILLIAMS (New South WalesNationals Whip in the Senate) (14:58): My question is to the Minister for Rural Health, Senator McKenzie. Can the minister outline the Turnbull government's commitment to ensuring access to essential health services for all Australians regardless of where they live?


Senator McKENZIE (VictoriaMinister for Rural Health, Minister for Sport, Minister for Regional Communications and Deputy Leader of The Nationals) (14:58): I thank Senator Williams for his question. The coalition's budget saw record investment in essential health services in hospitals, in medical research, in medicines and in Medicare, all underpinned by a stronger economy. It's this government's plan for a stronger economy that guarantees the essential services Australians rely on. However, access to medical care will not be equitable if regional Australians cannot access qualified doctors and health professionals. Today our cities have approximately 4½ doctors for every 1,000 people, while our most rural areas have just over two doctors per thousand.

On budget night we unveiled the Stronger Rural Health Strategy, the most comprehensive workforce reform package ever produced in Australia. It resets 29 years of incremental regulatory build-up at every stage of the medical workforce supply, including teaching, training and retention. Let's talk about teaching. We're actually establishing the Murray-Darling medical schools network, creating end-to-end medical school programs that take school leavers straight to rural medical schools. We're cutting red tape for our bonded students, making it easier for them to do their return-of-service obligations in the region. In terms of training, we're making it easier for junior doctors to stay in the regions after graduation, with new access to Medicare provider numbers when working in supervised general practice in the regions. We're providing incentives for more of these doctors to gain full specialist GP qualifications. We're also continuing to support funding to retain GPs and better targeting of the rural bulk-billing incentives. Our Stronger Rural Health Strategy will deliver 3,000 specialist GPs to the regions over the next 10 years, providing Australians with long-term, sustainable access to essential health services, regardless of where they live.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Williams, a supplementary question.



Senator WILLIAMS (New South WalesNationals Whip in the Senate) (15:00): I thank the minister for that good news. What will this mean for the number of nurses and allied health professionals in the regions?


Senator McKENZIE (VictoriaMinister for Rural Health, Minister for Sport, Minister for Regional Communications and Deputy Leader of The Nationals) (15:00): Our Stronger Rural Health Strategy will deliver around 3,000 local doctors to the regions, but it's not just about local doctors. I know Senator Williams has been a strong advocate for nurses in his state. This strategy acknowledges the crucial role that nurses play in delivering quality health outcomes. We'll support nurses to move into primary healthcare settings and improve educational opportunities for nurses about primary health care too.

Meanwhile, our consolidated Workforce Incentive Program will provide clear financial incentives for general practices out in the regions to employ more nurses in multidisciplinary environments, as well as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health professionals and other allied health professionals. In addition to delivering more local doctors, the strategy will deliver more than 3,000 additional nurses practising in rural areas and hundreds more allied health professionals out in the regions.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Williams, a final supplementary question.



Senator WILLIAMS (New South WalesNationals Whip in the Senate) (15:01): It's good to hear that one side of this chamber cares about regional Australia. How will this improve the health outcomes for patients in regional areas?


Senator McKENZIE (VictoriaMinister for Rural Health, Minister for Sport, Minister for Regional Communications and Deputy Leader of The Nationals) (15:01): Addressing the inequities in access to high-quality medical care has been a longstanding challenge in Australia. Previous governments have introduced many programs over the years, but the problem isn't solved. There are still rural areas where Australian families cannot access a doctor when they need it. This is a very carefully calibrated suite of initiatives that will change in a sustainable, efficient and equitable way the provision of health care for those living in the regions. It will support country students to become country doctors through end-to-end training, without having to end up in a capital city. That is what the research says will make a difference. It will support health professionals in having fulfilling and prosperous careers in regional Australia, and, most importantly, it will ensure the people of regional Australia will be able to access highly-qualified, domestically-trained doctors and health professionals when and where they need it.

Senator Cormann: I ask that further questions be placed on the Notice Paper.