Before becoming an MP, I was a clinical nurse and midwife, and academic researcher in rural health. I have seen up close the problems in developing a strong health workforce, and the ramifications when we fall short.
Nowhere is this more critical, or fatal, than in rural, remote and regional Australia.
Last week I spoke at the 150th anniversary of Northeast Health Wangaratta, a health service with a catchment area of 90,000 people. I was proud to be a part of this workforce for close to 30 of its 150 years, starting in 1986 when I walked in the door as a midwifery grad. I was hired almost on sight with one question – what size uniform did I take?
I reckon a similar nurse midwife could walk off the street today and be working an afternoon shift that evening. With more regulatory oversight, sure. But our health services need everyone they can get.
Regional Australians have fewer doctors, nurses, dentists, pharmacists, psychologists and other health workers per capita compared to our city cousins. Our bulk billing rates are among the lowest in the country.
Long waiting lists mean less disease prevention, more chronic disease, longer times to diagnosis, more avoidable complications. It’s expensive to travel to see a specialist in Melbourne or Sydney, out of reach of many who are struggling to pay their rent or electricity bill.
Hospitals must rely on locums, meaning they’re spending millions of dollars on commercial accommodation instead of clinical care.
Workforce shortages lead to poor health outcomes. Taking the Albury Wodonga Health catchment area for an example, our life expectancy is one year lower than the average. We have higher rates of asthma, arthritis, obesity, and cancer. The mental health statistics are devastating. Our mental health rates are 38% higher than the national average. Tragically, we have a higher prevalence of suicide, with 16.7 suicides per 100,000. Cardiac arrest rates in the Hume region are the second highest in the state.
When we don’t have enough health workers, it’s our local doctors, nurses and allied health professionals who suffer. We can’t afford to lose any more to burnout, simply because they’re shouldering a load that should be shared, but there’s no-one there.
We need urgent change. We need a long-term and sustainable solution. We’ve got to focus on nurturing the talent we have locally. Our young people have enormous potential, but we often lose them to universities and hospitals in the cities because we don’t have enough opportunities here for their education and training in health careers.
My electorate is famous for its innovation, and we have some solutions to build our home-grown health workforce. The Murray Darling Medical School is one success story. It could accommodate double the students it currently is funded for.
The Collaborative Centre for Contemporary Education and Research proposal evolved during consultations on the Albury Wodonga Regional Deal. This Centre proposes a purpose-built facility which will co-locate multidisciplinary clinical practice, education and training. It will provide health undergraduate and p ostgraduate student facilities for the three major entities that train health workers on the border: the Australian Defence Force; the tertiary sector which includes La Trobe, Charles Sturt University, the University of NSW and Wodonga and Albury TAFEs; and Albury Wodonga Health.
This Centre’s research will drive data-informed service planning and provision, which is difficult to do in regional Australia. And it will coordinate placements, deepen the workforce pool through increased student exposure to our region, and encourage education and training organisations to invest in our region.
Before becoming an MP, I spent a decade researching the best ways to grow and retain a strong regional health workforce. I was deeply involved in the University of Melbourne School of Rural Health, which also pioneered this integrated form of becoming a centre of multi-disciplinary education and research. I know that this proposal for the border will work.
This is where the Commonwealth Government can step in. I’ve already taken this to the Treasurer. The Minister for Health and the Assistant Minister for Rural and Regional Health are on notice that I’ll be coming to them too.
And this is what I’ll be saying. We don’t just need you to help us build a hospital. Help us build a rural workforce by funding this Centre.
If you care about addressing the health workforce shortage, and you believe the best way to grow a rural health workforce is to invest in locals, then the only conclusion is to give us the tools to educate, train and retain our own at home.