31 July 2023

At one point or another, we have all been a patient in the healthcare system. It’s a universal experience. But the quality of this experience can be greatly shaped by the interactions we have with a nurse, GP, physio or psychologist.

It is the healthcare worker that is critical to our care.

A GP who makes the time to call us about our test results, or a nurse who extends their shift to make sure we have what we need.

Our healthcare workforce is vital to us being able to lead healthy, and fulfilling, lives.

But in regional Australian, we have fewer doctors, nurses, dentists, pharmacists, psychologists and other health workers per capita compared to our city cousins.

These workforce shortages are leading to poor health outcomes. Long waiting lists mean less disease prevention, more chronic disease, longer times to diagnosis, more avoidable complications.

When you live regionally or rurally, it’s expensive to travel to see a specialist in Melbourne or Sydney. Specialists become out of reach of many who are struggling to pay their rent or electricity bill.

When we don’t have enough health workers, it’s not just the patients that’s suffer. It’s our local doctors, nurses and allied health professionals who suffer too.

Health professions in rural areas are more likely to report longer working hours than their metropolitan counterparts.

And the workforce pipeline is not going to get better anytime soon.  A 2021 survey of final year medical students found a strong preference to work in capital cities, with less than 20% of graduates showing a preference to work in regional or rural towns.

We can’t afford to lose any more health professionals to burnout, simply because they’re shouldering a load that should be shared, but there’s not enough people there.

That health services in regional areas are falling short is demonstrated when you look at how much money is being spent there, compared to metro areas.

A recent report by the National Rural Health Alliance highlighted this shocking disparity. According to this report, the gap between healthcare spending in urban versus rural areas is $6.5 billion.

The report concluded that this type of health inequity is unjust and unfair for regional and rural Australians.

The health outcomes in Albury Wodonga demonstrate what happens when this health inequity occurs.

In Albury Wodonga, the life expectancy is one year lower than the national 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. Cardiac arrest rates in the Hume region are the second highest in the state.

Albury Wodonga Health is the service provider for this area. It is the only cross-border health service in the nation, servicing a large catchment of 300,000 people.

But within 15 years, this catchment will grow by a third. By 2040 we will need a hospital and workforce capable of handling 150,000 emergency presentations, 40,000 surgeries and 1,900 births every year.

A strong, capable and skilled workforce is desperately needed in Albury-Wodonga more than ever.

Before becoming an MP, I was a clinical nurse and midwife – I have seen how workforce shortages impact patients, workers, communities.

But I was also an academic researcher at the University of Melbourne School of Rural Health for over a decade. I researched the best ways to grow and retain a strong regional health workforce. I know there are solutions, and that we must work together to respond to these terrible shortages of health professionals. Our regional and rural communities deserve this.

To solve this problem on the Border, we must bring together our major health education institutions of TAFEs, universities, and our local hospital Albury Wodonga Health.

Albury Wodonga Health are proposing to do just this by creating a Collaborative Education and Research Centre. This Centre will not just help solve our workforce shortages, but will make Albury-Wodonga the Regional Health Research and Education Capital of Australia.

The Collaborative Centre will be co-located at the new hospital in Albury currently under development with NSW and Victorian government funding.

This Centre will be a purpose-built facility which brings together clinical practice, research, education and training. It will pool resources for regional health research. It will enhance our cross-border data collection and analysis. It will invest in our mid-career health professionals so they stay in our region.

For example, currently there are no local options for postgraduate study in cardiac care nursing. Albury Wodonga Health says they have a staff member attending a university in Adelaide to complete this specialty course. But more cardiac care nurses are desperately needed – the cardiac cath lab at Albury Hospital can only be open a few days a week, and requires specialised staff to increase its operational hours. A local training facility for postgraduate nursing, such as cardiac care specialisations, will ensure we can meet the needs of our community and generate a pipeline for the necessary health workforce.

The Centre is key to attracting, training and retaining high quality staff to meet the needs of this growing population.

This joint proposal has come from Albury Wodonga Health, University of New South Wales, Latrobe University, Charles Sturt University, Wodonga TAFE and TAFE NSW. And there is potential for the Army School of Health to join as a partner. In Albury Wodonga we actually train our army and defence medics; they can offer real skills when it comes to building a health workforce.

As a former health researcher, I know firsthand what an integrated centre of multidisciplinary education and research can do.

Trust me when I say – I know this proposal will work.

I know this is what our region needs.

This is a big vision. Like every journey, it starts with a single step. The first step here is a small one – a modest funding request of $250,000 to facilitate a Discovery Phase of the project.

I have written to the Minister for Health, the Minister for Education, the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development and Local Government and the Assistant Minister for Rural and Regional Health on this proposal; asking them to come together to fund it. To fund the solutions we are putting forward to address the healthcare worker crisis.

So far the Government response to this funding request have skated around the ask – referencing existing training opportunities, and restating their commitment to ‘increasing the supply of health professionals around Australia – especially in regional, rural and remote areas of the Country.’

But if this Government says it wants to address the health workforce shortage, this is how. Provide $250,000 as the first step on a project that could provide the tools to educate, train and retain our own at home.

The National Rural Health Alliance report on rural health investment that I referenced earlier, recommended that any solution to address the state of healthcare services needs to be place-based. No community is the same, nor do they have the same challenges.

I urge the Government not to approach this regional and rural healthcare shortage crisis like it would in the cities, or across the country.

Help us build our health workforce by investing in this innovative solution for Albury Wodonga.

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.

Rural Australia makes up 30% of our population, provides 90% of the food we eat, and brings in 50% of Australia’s tourism income. But, a higher burden of disease in rural Australia represents a $27 billion loss in economic contribution. We must properly invest in the healthcare of regional, rural and remote Australia, in order to benefit everyone.

I really urge the Government to come to the table on this one, and help us realise the extraordinary opportunity to bring together universities and our biggest health service, so that we can deliver the solutions to the healthcare workforce shortages that we desperately need.

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