Rural and Remote Health Care in Australia

Published: August 7, 2017

If you are living in one of Australia’s remote and rural areas, you might be concerned about how much money you’ll need if a medical emergency were to happen. Your distance away from cities and hospitals is probably a major source of worry. This is not only due to the cost, time and inconvenience it takes to travel to the nearest care centre, but what if you need medical assistance en-route to the hospital?

Rural health care

  • What is it
  • Who needs it
  • Important stats

Cost vs Value

  • Is it worth it
  • Benefits
  • How to save

Review by State

  • Northern territory
  • Queensland
  • Tasmania

Whatever your concerns are, we hope this guide will help you discover how to overcome these challenges and put your mind at ease. Various rural and remote health options are available to you and we’ll discuss them below.

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What is Rural health care?

Rural Health Care focuses on Australians living in rural and remote areas and their need to travel a greater distance for health services. The obstacles faced by rural residence and their health care provides are vastly different than in urban areas, which is why they require a specific type of health care system, catered toward their specific needs and circumstances.

Various private healthcare services are available to the rural population, such as transporting doctors to very remote regions, eligible patient assisted travel schemes and affordable accommodation for parents while their child is being hospitalised.

However, remote and rural residents are often found to be less likely than urban residents to have long-term health cover, despite their economic, social and often cultural tendencies toward riskier behaviour. This is most likely due to the cost of private health insurance and many rural residents being of a lower income level.

According to 2016 statistics from the National Rural Health Alliance Inc., people living in remote areas are generally 20% more susceptible to health risks, such as diabetes and heart disease. This might be as a result of poor diet, smoking and in some cases excessive drinking. Also, maintaining good oral health in remote areas is also not always seen a priority, resulting in 37% of rural adults suffering from untreated tooth decay.

The research further revealed that:

  • Suicides in rural areas of Australia was double that of urban areas.
  • Coronary heart diseases claimed 40% more deaths in remote areas of Australia.
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease accounted for a 60% higher death rate in people living in remote and rural areas.
  • Land transport accidents resulted in five times more deaths than in metropolitan areas.

The challenges facing rural health care

One of the main challenges of rural health insurance is the continuing shortage of qualified medical professionals. Remote areas have the lowest number of doctors per capita, thus limiting their access to immediate medical attention, which in turn leads to a lower life expectancy and higher rates of injury and disease. Rural communities face many challenges, including:

  • Chronic conditions: Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a common lung disease that causes difficulty in breathing, resulted in 40% more deaths in rural areas. Diabetes was also found to be a common chronic condition requiring strict medical observation and podiatry, which is not easily accessible in remote Australia.
  • Detection and treatment of illnesses: Poor access to health professionals jeopardises both early detection and the necessary care required during recovery.
  • Lower income: Due to their generally lower income levels, people in outlying areas might neglect injuries which could lead to infection or self-medicate when feeling ill.
  • Pregnancy: Complications when giving birth, without immediate access to emergency services, could affect the wellbeing of the mother and child.
  • Mental Health: Remote areas have less than half the number of psychologists and 65% fewer occupational therapists than in urban areas. These factors contribute to a higher percentage of mental health problems going undiagnosed and untreated.

The cost and value of private health insurance

Now that you know how important health care is when living in the rural and remote areas of Australia, let’s see if it’s worth the money you’ll pay.

Private Health Insurance helps you avoid paying penalties, like the Lifetime Health Cover (LHC) loading, which adds an additional 2% to the base rate of your policy. Additionally, having private health care you helps you pay for treatment and services, ensuring you’ll have less out-of-pocket expenses.

Yes, private cover is an additional expense, but in the long-term it can help you save you a lot of money and provide you peace of mind. It’s a great feeling knowing you and your family will be covered in case of a medical emergency. To ensure you are able to afford these services, we’ve compiled a list of ways you can save on your private health insurance:

  • Join before your 31st birthday and avoid paying the 2% penalty, which will be added to your base rate premium.
  • Tailor your policy to include only what you need. Do not pay for any unnecessary extras. Know what you want cover for and only invest in that.
  • If you have a family member who is a teacher or doctor, you may be eligible to join their health fund and receive reduced rates.
  • Try and pay for your entire premium before April 2, to lock in the previous year’s rate.
  • Save as much as you can by capping the amount you claim.
  • Don’t be afraid to compare policy premiums and switch if you to a more affordable option.
  • When you increase the excess you have to pay, your monthly premiums will also be lower.
Protect Your Family’s Health

Rural health care in Australia according to state

When you know which health services and online support options are available in your area, you will be better equipped to handle medical emergencies and take care of your family’s health. Below is a list of health services available in your territory.

Northern Territory

The Northern Territory (NT), a vast rural area, is a unique place to live, work and travel to. Even though health services are scarce there are still options available to you, in fact there are 8 NT Community Care Centres available:

  • Alice Springs Community Health Centre
  • Casuarina Community Health Centre
  • Katherine Community Health Centre
  • Karama Child and Family Health Clinic
  • Nhulunbuy Community Health Centre
  • Nylander Child Health Clinic
  • Palmerston Community Care Centre
  • Tennant Creek Community Health Centre

Health services available in the Northern Territory of Australia

Services ProvidedDescription
Primary health care
  • This includes 24/7 emergencies, ambulance services, obstetric emergencies, mental health and disaster management.
  • Primary health takes care of all medical assessments, cancer checks and treatments, cardiac services, diabetes, infectious diseases, and anything related to your kidneys, as well as mental health and rehabilitation.
Maternity services
  • Publicly-funded midwives will travel to your nearest hospital when you are close to your due-date, to help with the birth.
  • Shared maternity care is available among your doctor, other doctors and midwives at your clinic or hospital.
  • Specialist doctors practise in Darwin, Alice Springs and Tennant Creek.
  • Birthing on Country is a program offered to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who prefer to follow culturally appropriate birth plans.
Mental healthYou have two options:
  1. Top End Mental Health Services
    • A clinician will assess the urgency of the case and refer you.
    • A perinatal team will screen mothers during pregnancy and early parenthood.
    • Specialist clinical services are available to children, adolescents and families with mental health problems.
    • Depending on the area you are in, if you are over 16, you may be referred by the on-call team to inpatient or youth services.
  2. Central Australia Mental Health Services
Dental servicesFree dental services are available to:
  • Children under the age of 18.
  • People that are part of the Federal Government’s cleft lip and cleft palate scheme.
  • People who have a Centrelink Health Care or Pensioner Concession card.
  • Remote residents without access to private dental services but need emergency dental-care.
Aerial medical servicesCareflight NT offers a 24 hour aerial critical care retrieval service to Top End members.

Queensland rural and remote

Despite the remoteness of most of Queensland, you’ll find a mix of district, rural and community hospitals spread out over the area. Healthcare centres generally offer health services, with rural health services supported by visiting medical officers and remote area nurses.
You’ll also find that multidisciplinary teams are used by the Royal Flying Doctor Service, making a wide range of primary health care services available to you.

The need to travel to a medical professional can be reduced with Queensland Telehealth which uses video and audio technology to connect rural residents with major hospitals and specialists.

You might want to investigate the Patient Travel Subsidy Scheme (PTSS). This scheme offers subsidies for clinically appropriate, cost-effective transport by rail, air, bus or motor vehicle. However, if you want to apply for PTSS you must be eligible for Medicare, meaning you have:

  • permanent residence in Australia, or
  • applied for a permanent visa (excluding a parent visa) or
  • cover by Reciprocal Health Care Agreement within another country.

South Australia Health services

South Australia Health Services are designed to maintain and improve health care in remote and rural areas. Health services available to you include those in the table below.

Services ProvidedDescription
Inpatient care
  • Access to 5 mental health networks, all with psychiatrists, nursing and allied health staff.
  • A Consultation Liaison Psychiatric Service is provided by the Distance Consultation Service (DCS).
Emergency medical care
  • SA Health Major Accident Plan, SA Health Multiple Burns Plan and SA Health Major Incident Community Recovery Arrangements.
Primary and community care
  • Integrated mental health inpatient units, emergency departments, youth mental health illnesses (16 – 24 years), [email protected], ambulance and emergency services, dental and access to the National Health Services Directory.
Intermediate and acute care
  • The Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS), together with the National Farmer’s Federation (NFF) is readily available for health issues.
  • Country Health SA provides a network of hospitals and health services for people in remote areas surrounding Adelaide Hills, Barossa, Eyre Peninsula, Far North, Fleurieu Peninsula and Kangaroo Island, Limestone Coast, Murray Mallee and Yorke Peninsula and Mid North.
Aged care
  • Acute care hospitals can be used by seniors, offering both public and private hospital care, ambulance and specialist services.
  • Home care services are also available.

Tasmania rural health insurance

The OneHealth system was recently introduced to integrate and streamline healthcare in Tasmania.

Services ProvidedDescription
e-health and on-line services
  • My Health Record is a service that secures online recording of health information, improving communication with your doctor, health services, hospitals and specialists.
  • Video-conferencing equipment from the Telecare Online Services Network connects rural and remote patients with health professionals and specialists at larger care centres.
Mental health and well-being
  • A wide range of mental health services assist in maintaining your well-being, guarding against the symptoms of loneliness and isolation.
  • Tasmania has four public hospitals and a network of rural hospitals.
  • Each hospital has an outpatient clinic providing medical testing, integrated services (such as residential aged care, community health services and general practice) and allied health services.
Emergency assistanceThere are two numbers to call in case of an emergency:
  • 000 for any medical emergency.
  • 112 for ambulance assistance when your mobile phone is out of credit or range.
Travelling to receive medical services
  • The Patient Travel Assistance Scheme provides financial support to help with medical travel and accommodation if you are a resident member of Australia, have a visa or are covered by the Reciprocal Health Agreement from another country.
  • The Hospital Link bus service, provides transport for patients, their families and members of the public between North West Regional Hospital and the Mersey Community Hospital.
  • Ambulance Tasmania and the Royal Flying Doctor Service provide emergency ambulance care and non-emergency patient transport.
  • Find out if you are eligible for accommodation while your child is being hospitalised, through Ronald McDonald House.

 Victoria rural health services

Most rural hospitals have an Urgent Care Centre that provides emergency care and assistance in the community.  Aboriginal, community and bush nursing hospitals can also be found across Victoria.

The Victorian Patient Transport Assistance Scheme (VPTAS) subsidises some of the costs incurred when travelling more than 100km’s one way, when you need to see a medical specialist.

If you are planning on starting a family and want to give birth in a public hospital, there are various child birthing options offered. The level of care you will receive during your pregnancy will depend on:

  • Your health
  • Your risk of complications
  • Where you live
  • Your availability
  • Your preferences

Western Australia

WA covers about a third of Australia, and has many isolated areas. It is vital that you know how to access health services in this region.

Services ProvidedDescription
Rural Outreach Fund
  • You can access specialist care through various outreach services.
  • The Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) can be relied on for general and emergency care.
  • The National Health Services Directory tells you where your nearest health service is.
  • Small communities without a hospital have a multipurpose medical centre; patients can be transported to a larger centre if needs be.
Pregnancy and childbirth
  • Most doctors in remote areas can see to all your needs during your pregnancy, including delivering babies.
  • Midwives and obstetricians are also available.
  • In very remote areas, doctors and health services offer phone or videoconference appointments.
  • The eHealth support for rural families is also an option.
Patient Assisted Travel Scheme (PATS)
  • Rural Australians are given financial assistance to access specialist healthcare that requires travelling to another area.
First Aid
  • You are encouraged to empower yourself for emergencies by training through the Royal Lifesaving Society, St John’s Ambulance or the Red Cross.

New South Wales

Although rural and remote health services in NSW may be few and far between, help is always available when you need it. Services available to you include:

  • Helpline links isolated people with professionals who can help.
  • Online resources and tools, with downloadable apps, are available. Use reputable services such as Healthdirect’s service finder.
  • Healthdirect offers free 24-hour non-urgent health advice on 1800 022 222.
  • Isolated Patients Travel and Accommodation Assistance Scheme (IPTAAS) subsidises travel costs for specialist services, if you are eligible.

Make sure you are covered, even if it is with the most basic of health cover. The benefits of funding your health and well-being should not be under-estimated.

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