Dr Tony Lembke says regional and rural hospitals are being inundated with patients due to the lack of GPs in their area.
Dr Tony Lembke says regional and rural hospitals are being inundated with patients due to the lack of GPs in their area. Jay Cronan

Yawning gaps in rural health

THE region's hospitals are being overburdened by people who should have been treated by their general practitioner or other health professional, a new report reveals.

Hospitals such as Lismore Base are being forced to look after the elderly because there are not enough aged-care facilities – the result of unbalanced Federal funding.

The report, produced by the National Rural Health Alliance, says rural areas missed out on more than $2 billion in necessary funding in 2006-07 – the most recent year that data was available.

The alliance is calling for the Federal Government to “rectify the yawning gaps in rural health services that have become entrenched over many years”.

Key areas that required urgent attention included mental health, dental care and the funding of Medicare Locals at a level that would allow them to operate effectively in rural and remote areas, the alliance said.

Aged care and the health of indigenous people were two other areas that needed extra funding in rural and remote areas, the report said.

The report focuses primarily on the shortage of primary care – that is, community-based services provided outside of hospitals.

Northern Rivers General Practitioner Network chairman Dr Tony Lembke said health services affected by the deficit inregional health funding included the difficulty for people in smaller towns in getting an appointment to see a doctor.

“They also miss out on access to physiotherapists, psychologists and dieticians,” the Alstonville GP said.

The alliance's chief executive, Gordon Gregory, said the result was more people would end up going into hospital.

“You can't see a doctor, so you go to hospital. There is no aged-care facility, so you end up being cared for in hospital,” Mr Gregory said.

The focus of Federal funding needed to shift from hospitals to primary care, he said.

He said he was hopeful the Government, with regional members on the cross benches, could rectify some of the inequities in the funding system.

“There will be small amounts of new funding and we hope it will be directed to the regions, specifically to the areas of mental health, dental, aged and primary care,” Mr Gregory said.

Dr Lembke said it was not a matter of primary and hospital services fighting over the same dollar. Both areas were under-funded, he said.

“Patients in our region could hope to see three areas of improvement from July, when the move to Medicare Locals occurs,” Dr Lembke said.

“The first is easier access to primary care before they get sick. The second is a more joined-up service delivery, so that teamwork will come into play in the treatment of an individual, and then there is a greater emphasis on quality in the healthcare providers, which can be measured by waiting times.

“Of all the Government reforms, these are the two that are of the most significance to our area – to correct the imbalance between town and country and to re-orient the spending towards primary care.”

The Government had already shown signs of moving in this direction, but the May Federal Budget would be “the moment of truth”, Dr Lembke said.

“The Budget will be where the rhetoric meets the road,” he said.

“We need these new organisations to be funded in order for them to adequately do their job.”

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