QUEENSLANDERS living in rural and remote communities can expect their local health services to be maintained or improved under a new rural health service framework announced by the State Government recently.
Queensland Health Minister, Lawrence Springborg, said the new framework, which was developed with input from the Rural and Remote Clinical Network led by Theodore Hospital medical superintendent, Dr Bruce Chater, would guarantee a minimum level of health services for rural Queenslanders.
“This framework establishes a safety net for rural health services that doesn’t exist at the moment.
“It puts the communities front and centre – they will actually know what they can expect from their local health service.”
The landmark framework has drawn strong support from the Rural Doctors Association of Queensland (RDAQ) but president, Dr Sue Masel, has called upon the Minister to strengthen the guarantee with a ministerial directive.
“I can't underline enough the confidence for rural Queenslanders if a minimum standard for their health services was fixed in stone by the Minister,” she said.
“One concern is that the anxiety being created by medical officer contracts puts rural services at risk due to attrition.”
“We have seen examples like Moura were rural service have been targeted in cost saving measures.
“I would like to see the health service guarantee embedded in legislation or provided in a ministerial directive as a clear and unambiguous indication to all Hospital and Health Service (HHS) boards across the state that minimum staffing levels must be supported.”
Rural and Remote Clinical Network chairman, Dr Bruce Chater, was asked by the Minister to prepare a plan for rural and remote health last March after several communities including Morven, Moura and Eidsvold faced cuts to their local health services.
The cuts were proposed as the locally run HHS boards, installed by the Newman Government, attempted to bring the operating costs of their districts within budget.
Dr Chater said the framework would provide clarity for both doctors and patients.
“It will provide clarity in rural areas for doctors, nurses and patients about what they can expect from their local health service,” he said.
“Communities can get on and not feel afraid that their health services are going to be taken away – it’s a bottom line for them.”
“It’s also good for the HHS boards because they now know the minimum level of service that they are expected to maintain.”
Central to the framework is the identification of communities based roughly on population size or distance to another, larger health facility. The framework identifies which level of health service each community can expect and outlines the specific services that must be provided as a minimum.
Mr Springborg said there will be “flexibility” within the framework but only where both the local community and HHS boards agree on any changes to service standards.
He said there might also be scope for health services to improve as communities grow.
“The Newman Government is determined to reverse the trend of previous years that has seen the steady withdrawal of many services from rural and remote communities," he said.
"We are already achieving this with the return of birthing services to places like Beaudesert and Cooktown and we have also increased our flying obstetricians and gynaecological services.
“We are all about putting health services back into the bush because over the past twenty years we have had a situation where rural hospitals have basically become glorified triage centres.
“We’ve had situations where highly trained, dedicated doctors and nurses have been operating glorified triage services – waiting to transport patients out of rural hospitals for simple procedures that they should be doing themselves.”
Dr Chater said the delivery of chemotherapy drugs to cancer patients in rural areas was a good example of how medical treatment had been “dumbed down” in rural areas in recent decades.
“We used to deliver chemotherapy all the time and gradually doctors and nurses got frightened of doing it because they weren’t certain that they should,” he said.
“We had patients in Theodore in their 70s who were driving to Rockhampton twice a week for chemo and then driving home at 8pm at night when they should have been having that treatment closer to home.”
Dr Chater said the Rural and Remote Clinical Network had been working with north Queensland based oncologist, Sabe Sabesan, to develop some guidelines to allow rural doctors to administer chemotherapy.
“We now have the Cancer Network on board and Dr Sabesan has developed a plan that we are now implementing that will see more chemotherapy delivered in rural hospitals,” he said.
“Dr Sabesan has found it is both effective and cost effective to deliver chemo on sight.
“This new framework will give doctors more confidence to deliver these kinds of services.”