The truth comes out
“The findings are what we all knew, but noone was willing to say”.
That is local health advocate Shirlee Burge’s take on the long awaited final report from a rural and regional health inquiry.
The health outcomes and access to health and hospital services in rural, regional and remote NSW inquiry was launched in August 2020, with 15 hearings held between March 2021 and February this year.
One of the early hearings was held in Deniliquin, with the most damning evidence that day from Deniliquin doctor Marion Magee who revealed doctors were overworked, underresourced, at breaking point and ready to walk away.
Many more examples of inaccessible and inadequate health services were heard from a variety of people, including Mrs Burge and her husband Tim.
The 322-page final report, tabled in Parliament on Thursday, offered up 22 key findings and 44 recommendations to be enacted.
Among those findings, the inquiry panel’s first five points found that:
- rural, regional and remote patients have significantly poorer health outcomes, greater incidents of chronic disease and greater premature deaths when compared to their counterparts in metropolitan areas.
- residents in rural, regional and remote New South Wales have inferior access to health and hospital services, especially for those living in remote towns and locations and Indigenous communities, which has led to instances of patients receiving substandard levels of care.
- residents living in rural, regional and remote communities face significant financial challenges in order to access diagnosis, treatment and other health services compared to those living in metropolitan cities.
- rural, regional and remote medical staff are significantly under resourced when compared with their metropolitan counterparts, exacerbating health inequities.
- the Commonwealth/state divide in terms of the provision of health funding has led to both duplication and gaps in service delivery.
Mrs Burge said now comes the challenge of “fixing it”.
“I have to say, they (the inquiry panel) nailed it,” Mrs Burge said.
“This now has to be our turning point, there has to be a change because this cannot be ignored any longer.
“The report in its entirety is very damning of the way health districts have operated, and now we just have to keep the pressure up and hope we can move forward in the right way.
“We’ve just got to get on with fixing it, and we should see some results if the right people are seeing it through.
“We have to put our faith in Bronnie Taylor, who was appointed the Regional Health Minister - I think it is a good thing to have her on board and not just Health Minister (Brad) Hazzard in Sydney.”
The recommendations of the report cover a lot of ground in efforts to improve services, access to those services, funding models and more.
But Mrs Burge said it is the recommendations on medical staffing recruitment and support which are the most welcomed, and should be prioritised.
One of the specific recommendations is that NSW Health work with the Australian Government “collaboratively to immediately invest in the development and implementation of a 10-Year Rural and Remote Medical and Health Workforce Recruitment and Retention Strategy”.
The panel’s recommendation is that a range of stakeholders be consulted in setting out a clear strategy for how NSW Health will “work to strengthen and fund the sustainability and growth of rural, regional and remote health services in each town including quantifiable targets for tangible improvement in community-level health outcomes, medical and health workforce growth, community satisfaction, and provider coordination and sustainability.”
The strategy must also address hospital and general practice workforce shortages including GPs, nurses and midwives, nurse practitioners, mental health nurses, psychologists, psychiatrists, counsellors, social workers, paramedics, allied health practitioners and rural generalists.
“Recruitment has been broken in the Murrumbidgee Local Health District region for a long time, and during the hearings there was still a lot of denial.
“Now we have this report, there is no denying it.
“I hand it to all those people who came forward during the inquiry and told the truth, some of them putting their jobs on the line to do so.
“Now we have this report, recommendations on recruitment and the upgrade of facilities should be the number one priority.”
Mrs Taylor agrees the inquiry “shone a light where it needed to”, and said the government will prioritise health recruitment.
“To those who shared their deeply personal experiences, thank you,” she siad.
“The New South Wales Government has listened and accepts that there is a need to do more to improve patient care in regional and rural locations.
“Implementing bold new measures to attract key health workers to work in our regional health facilities and retaining that workforce will be a key focus of mine - everything is on the table when it comes to improving health outcomes in rural and regional New South Wales.”
The full inquiry report can be found at www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/committees/inquiries.