It was packed house at Club Tumut on Monday afternoon as local residents seized the opportunity to air their complaints with Shadow Minister for Health, Catherine King MP.
No one issue stood out amongst those who spoke, but their experiences painted a picture of the patchy and frustrating health service experienced by rural Australians – not only in Tumut, but around the country.
Over fifty people showed up to support government action on a range of health matters, with the meeting moved from the planned locale to accommodate the unexpectedly high turnout. Issues raised included:
• The long wait for specialists, with people in need of attention waiting months and months for a single appointment in Wagga for everything from gastroenterologists to psychologists.
• The need for more consultants in Tumut itself, as there is enough of a base to support specialists here rather than needing to travel to Wagga or elsewhere in the first place.
• Several people raised the need for a GP anaesthetist to support surgical procedures, including for pregnancy issues, at the Tumut Hospital rather than travelling to Wagga.
• The fact that only approved NSW Department for Health pastoral carers are able to visit the sick at Wagga Wagga Rural Referral Hospital, and that church groups that have worked with the hospital for decades are being turned away.
• A request that NDIS packages include travel costs for people with disabilities in places like Tumut, because a large amount of services require either the client travelling to, or the service provider travelling from, a larger base.
• The inadequate mental health services in rural areas, where the male suicide rate is often more than twice as high than in the cities.
Our local member, Mike Kelly, said that he had met with the NSW Health Minister, Brad Hazzard, to attempt to reach a solution on Tumut’s need for more procedural GPs, with the most immediate need being for an anaesthetist.
Ms King did not address the ‘District of Workforce Shortage’ classification that Tumut has been denied, that would allow overseas doctors to relocate here, which is what local practices blame for the difficulties in finding an anaesthetist to serve the region.
However, she did say there were policy measures in the works that aim to address this issue in rural communities in the long term.
“Finding a GP who is also able to do anaesthetics is actually really difficult,” she said.
“They are as rare as hen’s teeth, and what you’re seeing now is a lot of them ageing and retiring. To give the government its due, what it’s doing is establishing what’s called a Rural Health Commissioner, and the role of the Rural Health Commissioner is partly going to be to establish this new pathway for rural general practice, which is much broader than the general practice that’s taught today.
“That’s going to be done through the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine, and it’s come out of a model that’s been developed in Queensland. Only about 63 of them have graduated. So you’ll have a pool of GPs eventually who are much broader trained; there’s a longer-term solution but that’s going to take quite a while to happen.”
Ms King answered questions as best she could, but reiterated that the purpose of the meeting was primarily to listen, and to incorporate people’s experiences into Labor’s health policy if they are elected.
However, she did strongly encourage anyone to contact local member Mike Kelly’s office with any issues they are experiencing.
“We’re obviously not too far out from an election campaign, and Labor is developing its health policies in the lead up to the election,” she said.
“We’re keen to hear from people both about what is happening locally in terms of your health services, but also what ideas you might have nationally about the sorts of things we might look at in the future.”