It’s time to rethink the servicing of small towns

If you live in one of the 1,555 small towns across Australia, you probably know what it is like when you need to access essential health care and education professionals in your area. 

Too often you either don’t have access to a GP, pre-school teacher, psychologist, or dentist – or you have to travel hundreds of kilometres to see one. 

For some of the 1.8 million Australians living in small towns, this issue is a factor as to why some choose to leave regional areas.

But it might be surprising for you to learn that more Australians are choosing to live in small towns, than they were 30 years ago. Small town Australia is not shrinking – it’s more important than ever.

As Australia’s first independent regional think tank, the Regional Australia Institute (RAI) pulls together the best information available on regional issues and encourages governments to make the best decisions for regions.

Over the last 12 months, our team of researchers have been looking at the how we have fared as a nation in providing access to professional services to residents living in small towns. 

To do this, we used census data to track the number of GPs, dentists, nurses, psychologists, preschool teachers, primary school teachers, police officers, paramedics and social welfare workers in small towns from 1981 to 2011.

In releasing the report – Pillars of communities – we found that only 18 per cent of small towns have access to a GP, just 6 per cent have a psychologist, and our preschool teacher numbers have gone from a place of advantage - to below the national average. 

These shortages line up with some of the most pressing small town issues. 

Mental health issues are higher in remote areas with the rate of suicide four times that of the cities.

Kids in rural and remote areas are twice as likely to have developmental issues in early childhood.

It’s important to acknowledge that these issues aren’t ones that governments have ignored. Billions of dollars and a wide range of programs have been implemented over many decades to encourage professionals to live and work in regional areas.

The 2017/2018 Commonwealth budget has allocated over $2billion more to be spent over four years on workforce and incentive programs to improve the number of health professionals in rural and remote areas. 

After looking at the data and talking to people and professionals in communities, we have suggested four ways to use this money well. 

Firstly, supporting community initiatives is crucial. Each town has unique issues and policy made in Canberra needs to be flexible. 

If we listen locally and spend locally we can get a better result.

We also need to be more flexible about the roles professionals can play and invest in supporting specialist online services. Nursing in Bourke is different to nursing in Sydney.

The Australian Government’s Rural Generalist initiative and support for online mental health are a good start in these directions that we can build upon.

Pillars of communities: Only 18 per cent of small towns have access to a GP.

Pillars of communities: Only 18 per cent of small towns have access to a GP.

Finally we need to target funding to those rural and remote communities that need it most.

If we can implement some of these changes we might just get better results.  

For more information about our report, go to www.regionalaustralia.org.au.

Jack Archer – CEO Regional Australia Institute