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  • Writer's pictureFlow Australia

Prevention better than cure to close rural health gap

A study of 66,000 private health patients in regional Australia has mapped out the rates of chronic disease and revealed poor access to specialist care.

Country doctors have a saying: if you've been to one rural town, you've been to one rural town.

"Not every town has the same health issues," Rural Doctors Association of Australia chief executive Peta Rutherford said.

"There are pockets of disease types that have much higher rates in certain communities."

An analysis of 66,000 private health patients has revealed just how different health needs are across eight Australian regions, prompting calls for targeted funding and better preventative care. 

Westfund's regional health gap report, released on Thursday, showed patients in Townsville had higher rates of claim for coronary heart disease treatment than those in regional NSW.

Skin cancer was more prevalent among patients in Mackay followed by the NSW regions of Wollongong, Lithgow, Dubbo and Bathurst, according to seven years of the insurer's claims data.

There were more treatment claims for chronic conditions such as diabetes in Townsville, Mackay and Wollongong compared to the averages across the other regions.

"Variations are driven by a wide range of factors, including lifestyles, socio-economic status and environmental factors," the report said.

"Understanding these variations enables healthcare systems to tailor services to cater to the unique needs of specific areas."

The report showed access to ancillary health services such as physiotherapy, psychology,  optometry and dentistry was limited across the Queensland and NSW regions.

There were 14 providers per 1000 members in Mudgee, 27 in Bathurst and 30 in Dubbo and up to 281 providers in Townsville.

Delayed screening and limited access to treatments and providers were the main challenges faced by regional members, the report said.

The research confirmed inequity in regional services and the need for ongoing targeted health programs, rather than funding based on election cycles, Ms Rutherford said.

"Trying to attract healthcare professionals into these communities to take up a job, when you can only offer them a contract for three years, is really challenging," she said.

"People want to know they can move out there, settle their family, buy a house, but if they don't know how long the job is going to last it creates a challenge to even get the programs up and running."

The report also showed a severe shortage of private mental health care, particularly for children and young people who may wait years to see a specialist.

Mental health conditions worsened over the COVID-19 pandemic, with 26 per cent of the fund's members considered high risk during the height of lockdowns compared to 20 per cent before and after.

Westfund's chief executive Mark Genovese said improving health outcomes for rural people was of interest to all Australians.

"People who live in the city need people to move to regional areas to make sure we get a better quality of life for everybody," Mr Genovese said. 

"It's important that the government makes sure the infrastructure and the facilities are encouraging people to come out to these areas."


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