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‘We need help’: How the health system forgot these families

Email NSW rural communities feeling 'forgotten' by healthcare system By Claudia Jambor, Jennifer Browning and Jessie Davies

Posted April 14, 2019 08:13:33

woman holding newborn infant Photo: Payden was born two weeks ago at Gunnedah Hospital. (ABC News: Jessie Davies) Related Story: Living in a small town with a hospital but with no doctors to admit anyone Related Story: Country tour for city health students plants the seeds for a tree change Related Story: Budget banks on medical students falling in love with country life Related Story: Rural health in Tasmania heading for crisis without action, report says Map: NSW

Toni Matthews was prepared to have her first baby on the side of a country road.

With her partner Darren Beveridge behind the wheel, they left their Baradine property in north-west NSWwhen she went into labour.

Almost two hours later, they arrived at the nearest hospital, at Gunnedah.

"You're in the car, the kangaroos [are on the road], you just want to get there, you're in pain, you've got no pain relief, it's not nice," she said.

There are more than 21,000 babies born in regional NSW every year, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

They will die about two years earlier than their city counterparts, have a lower chance of surviving cancer and are more likely to suicide, according to research by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

NSW's Coalition Government faced a backlash in the bush at last month's state election, losing three regional seats.

Health is set to be a major issue when Australians head to the polls for the federal vote on May 18, with Labor campaigning particularly hard on the issue.

woman holding newborn baby to her chest Photo: Toni Matthews says living in a country town has its challenges. (ABC News: Jessie Davies)

Ms Matthews, now a mother-of-four, has refined her routine since the precarious birth of her first child in 15 years ago.

Her most recent baby, Payden, was induced on April 1 at Gunnedah Hospital.

She recognises living on the land comes with its challenges and said she "wouldn't have it any other way".

But she said the concentration of healthcare services in regional centres had not been balanced with support for people who live more remotely.

"People are feeling like they're kind of forgotten out here," she said.

"We need help, we need something to be done, we're not getting what we need."

man in collared shirt standing in front of a hospital entrance Photo: Country doctor Aniello Iannuzzi is worried about the future of rural healthcare.
(ABC News: Jessie Davies)

Country doctor Aniello Iannuzzi — who has worked as a GP in Coonabarabran for more than two decades — said he had watched rural health services be wound back.

"You've got this vicious cycle of patients who can't get access, who can't afford access and lack of skilled clinicians and an increasingly difficult situation in terms of recruiting and retaining skilled clinicians," he said.

"It's a world of hurt".

Federal Department of Health figures show there are more than 72,000 doctors servicing major cities around Australia — less than a third of that number are working in regional and remote areas.

Dr Iannuzzi said the issue had been compounded by long hours, poor conditions and a five-year freeze on remuneration for permanent doctors who work in country hospitals.

'Everyone is struggling'

As services decline, some bush communities are taking health into their own hands

Coonabarabran woman Jane McWhirter started the charity Palliative 4 People in 2015 after her husband Mark died of cancer.

Her decision was sparked by a comment Mark made while receiving treatment at Sydney's Chris O'Brien Lifehouse, a not-for-profit cancer treatment and support clinic.

"He actually did say at the time 'wouldn't it be good to have something like this at home'," she said.

woman in glasses looking sitting down at printouts Photo: Jane McWhirter started a palliative care charity after her husband died. (ABC News: Jessie Davies)

Ms McWhirter worked with the community to raise more than $100,000 to provide a palliative care facility, which opened this year at the Coonabarabran Hospital.

It's is a stark contrast to the previous space at the regional facility, which Jane described as "not ideal" for her husband to spend his last moments.

While Ms McWhirter is proud to have improved the situation in her home town, she said the responsibility to provide healthcare should not rest with charities.

"It's all well and good for [state and federal governments] to say they are going to do this or that, come up with the goods," she said.

"Don't just say it, do it."

Dr Iannuzzi said problems with regional healthcare could also be caused by one-size-fits-all policies that do not cater to the bespoke needs of patients in the bush.

"I think health departments in general have to understand that the rules they put in place in bigger centres don't apply and can't apply in smaller centres," he said.

"Too often we're getting told policies that we've had absolutely no say in formulating.

"That becomes a very stressful situation, it erodes a lot of trust and leads to situations where experienced clinicians then start to disengage."

Back in Baradine, Toni was keen to point out rural health battles went well beyond first-time mothers.

"Everyone is struggling," she said.

"My friends my age to be struggling how they are — high blood pressure and stressing and taking on more work and more jobs to try and survive."

Topics: health, child-health-and-behaviour, infant-health, health-administration, health-policy, healthcare-facilities, federal-election, government-and-politics, elections, federal-elections, nsw, baradine-2396, gunnedah-2380, sydney-2000, coonabarabran-2357

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