The Federal Government needs to do more than extend the Office of the National Rural Health Commissioner to tackle the disproportionately greater number of poor health outcomes experienced by regional patients.
Legislation is being introduced to expand the office, established in 2017, by appointing deputy commissioners. The focus on rural and regional health through its Stronger Rural Health Strategy is welcome but report after report shows it is sorely needed.
In September last year, a damning ABC 4 Corners investigation shared stories of patients, and brought more to the fore, who had died or suffered significant disability due to care given at regional hospitals. Their injuries were preventable. Our health system failed them.
The commission's progress has been slow. Its big achievement - in two and a half years - has been to get the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine to agree to develop a national framework for the Rural Generalist medical specialty and a pathway for rural generalists.
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We need public data to monitor performance too but the National Health Performance Authority refuses to release national data on death rates and adverse events in hospitals. In the US and England, this information is publicly available - by postcode.
State and federal governments need a proper, data-based strategy with more funding to tackle the reality for regional and rural patients. We experience poorer access and travel considerable distances to health services. The number of available doctors, including specialists, is considerably lower than in cities. Less experienced generalists often perform specialised practices.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare data shows that the rate of potentially avoidable death increases from 94 per 100,000 people in the major cities to 129 in regional areas. People living in rural and remote areas have higher rates of hospitalisations, disease, mortality, injury and poorer access to, and use of, health services, compared with those living in metropolitan areas.
As a regionally-based health and medical lawyer, I see the impact of disproportionately poor health resourcing for rural and regional residents. I see too many negligence cases and inquests involving avoidable death and serious injury. Legal action is often the catalyst for a focus on improved standards of professional responsibility and patient safety. A Rural Health Commission needs to tackle all these issues, and quickly, to save lives and livelihoods.
Catherine Henry is a regional NSW-based health and medical lawyer
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