Shortage of healthcare providers putting regional Australians’ health at risk
A new report shows access to healthcare remains an ongoing issue for Australians in regional areas, with half (49%) considering the wait time to see their GP unreasonable, some having to wait up to six weeks to get an appointment, and many having to travel more than two hours for an in-person consultation with non-GP specialists.
Liz Casmiri, Westfund’s Chief Health Care Services Officer says: "Regional areas experience serious health workforce shortages, despite having a greater need for services. We know that people in the regions experience higher rates of hospitalisations and preventable deaths than those living in major cities. From our research, we can also see there are higher rates of chronic conditions. Having access to healthcare providers that can help them manage their conditions is key in ensuring good health outcomes.”
The ‘Westfund Regional Health Gap Report’, launched by Australia’s leading regional not-for-profit private health insurer, Westfund Health Insurance, was commissioned to shed light on the current state of disease prevalence and healthcare access in regional Australia.
The report, developed in partnership with Insight Actuaries, used claims data over a seven-year period from 66,000 patients across regional locations. Its findings show that geographical factors significantly impact access to care, availability of services, and consequentially Australians’ healthcare outcomes.
Despite 1 in 4 Australians living in rural or regional areas, official data confirms that remote areas have 7 times fewer specialists compared with major cities. [i] The Westfund report reveals that access to ancillary service providers (such as dentists, optometrists, physiotherapists, podiatrists, and psychologists) is limited across all regional towns investigated, with as little as 14 providers per 1000 members in smaller towns.
The limited access to the healthcare system in regional areas is clearly impacting the long-term health of those who live there. The report shows that among members who are at medium or high risk of adverse health events, on average, almost a third (31%) also have a known chronic condition (such as mental health conditions, cancer, obesity, or diabetes).
Mark Genovese, Westfund’s CEO, believes the research findings represent a bigger, systematic access issue that requires a new, collaborative approach.
“Our report found that healthcare outcomes vary across Australia’s regional centres and healthcare provision and needs are mismatched. Understanding the variations in healthcare delivery based on location helps us to identify areas with unmet needs, target resources effectively and implement strategies to improve overall healthcare access and quality,” says Mr Genovese. “The most effective way to do this is with targeted, region-first prevention strategies to ensure the delivery of healthcare services is responsive to the specific health challenges faced by local communities.”
President of the Rural Doctors Association of Australia (RDAA), Dr RT Lewandowski, says that difficulty accessing health care in regional, rural, and remote areas had significant impacts on health outcomes.
“Around 7 million people, or nearly one third, of Australians live in rural and remote areas. We know that they often find it more difficult to access both GP and non-GP specialist care, have higher rates of hospitalisations, deaths and injury, and overall poorer health outcomes than those living in metropolitan areas,” Dr Lewandowski adds.
“Targeted strategies to increase the number of health care professionals, across all areas, is needed to address the ongoing maldistribution of doctors, nurses and allied health professionals to work toward reversing this inequity.”
“Our report demonstrates that regional Australia needs fundamental changes to how the system works, and without all parts of the health system working in collaboration to prioritise access to preventative measures for those living outside of metro areas, the situation won’t change,” says Mr Genovese.
“We know that we can play an important role in addressing the issue. We’ve spent the past ten years adding more preventive health benefits into our products as part of our broader health initiative to reduce and delay the onset of future health issues. But there is more work to do to support providers and deliver much-needed preventive services to the regions. We’re calling on policymakers and providers to work with us to accelerate programs that can address the healthcare gap for regional areas today,” adds Mr Genovese.
[i] Department of Health and Aged Care. About Australia's rural health workforce. Available at: About Australia's rural health workforce | Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care . Accessed in October 2023.