We should be so “lucky”

A recent report shows that as a nation, Australia needs to do better at providing essential services to those living in small towns – confirmation of what many already know, writes Cox Inall’s Melissa Aisthorpe.

Melissa AisthorpeIt’s often said to me, mostly by people who live in capital cities, how “lucky” I am to live in rural Australia and still be able to work in my chosen profession.

I have access to reliable internet service – which is more than can be said for many in rural Australia – and work for a dynamic company that has long embraced the concept of remote workers. However, like anywhere, there’s a bit of difference between the perception, and the actual reality of living in rural, regional or remote Australia.

If there’s one thing that still starkly illustrates the city/country divide, it’s access to professional services – or rather, the lack thereof.

A brief stint in hospital recently reinforced this for me (don’t worry, I’m fine!). I received excellent treatment from the amazing doctors and nurses at my local hospital and my awesome GP here in Emerald, but the need for further tests necessitated a 540km round trip to Rockhampton to access services that simply aren’t available here.

I’m “lucky” (there’s that word again) to live in a regional town with a hospital and many other services, and of course, I’m no Robinson Crusoe when it comes to having to travel to access certain professional services. But it’s a point that was further reinforced with the release of a startling new report produced by the think tank, Regional Australia Institute (RAI).

The report, Pillars of Communities: Service Delivery in Small Australian Towns, shows that as a nation, Australia needs to do better at providing essential services to those living in small towns.

It classifies small towns as those communities outside of major metropolitan areas with populations fewer than 5,000 people. I don’t live in a small town, but as the report points out, 1.8 million Australians do – that’s equal to the population of Adelaide.

The RAI reviewed the long-term change in the availability of services delivery professionals in these communities across 30 years. It measured the number of doctors, nurses, dentists, police officers, psychologists, teachers, paramedics and social welfare professionals in small towns in 1981 and again in 2011.

It found that many people in these areas across Australia continue to be disadvantaged in their ability to seek out basic essential service professionals.

As part of the project, the RAI developed a Small Towns Report Card grading small town access to services over the 30-year period from A to F. And quite frankly, the report card is one you would be very nervous to take home from school.

Access to psychologists, dentists and preschool teachers all rated an F. While the number of small towns that had access to a psychologist rose from 1 per cent to 6 per cent over the 30-year period, remote and very remote towns saw a dramatic decline. Only 5pc of small towns across Australia had access to a dentist in 2011. That number dropped to 1pc in “remote and very remote” towns in 2011 and 4pc in “outer regional small towns”. The number of preschool teachers in small towns also dropped dramatically, with only 16pc having access to one, compared to 25pc three decades ago.

The highest score on the report card was a B, which was for improved access to general practitioners, and primary and secondary school teachers.

The report found: “Overall, small town communities continue to have poorer per-capita access rates to service delivery professionals than the national average. Exceptions to this are for police officers, primary school teachers and paramedics. Although there have been improvements since 1981 the gap between small towns and national rates continues to be significant.”

While the report does not recommend definitive resolutions to these issues, it does point towards three approaches that should be further developed:

  • supporting places in most need to solve local access problems
  • increasing access to specialist digitally provided services
  • increasing the capacity and scope of effective services that the professional presence in these communities can provide.

People living in rural, regional and remote Australia shouldn’t have to consider themselves “lucky” to have access to professional services and good infrastructure. Unfortunately, we still do, and the fact access to some very vital services has actually declined in 30 years, is a red flag that we probably still will for a while yet.

Melissa Aisthorpe is an Account Director with Cox Inall Communications, based in Queensland.


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