The last minute inclusion of a rural health strategy in the Government’s Healthy Futures Bill is being hailed a significant victory for rural communities.
This means rural communities are considered a priority group by Government departments considering policy and will have service goals and targets established against which performance will be measured.
“If there are gaps as there are now, they will have to determine how to ensure equity in terms of outcome,” New Zealand Rural General Practice Network (RGPN) chief executive Dr Grant Davidson says.
What this means in reality is that more money and resources will have to be invested into rural health.
“We believe there needs to be more funding and effort into achieving better access and outcomes for rural people.”
The requirement to form a strategy was made at the last minute and while there was lobbying for its inclusion from the National Party, the Government was acting on a request from its own Members of Parliament.
Davidson says one of the biggest issues needing to be addressed by the strategy,is the recruitment and retention of health staff in rural areas.
“The health workforce in rural areas is getting worse by the day,” he says.
The RGPN has been developing a workforce strategy which it will present to the new health entity, Health NZ.
That strategy has three pillars: attracting people, training people in rural areas and retention.
He says new initiatives are needed to attract health workers and research from Canada and Australia show those who were raised in rural communities are more likely to remain in rural communities.
“We believe there needs to be more funding and effort into achieving better access and outcomes for rural people.”Dr Grant Davidson
Rural General Practice Network
Training of rural health professionals needs to primarily occur in rural areas so they retain connections to those communities instead of creating links to urban communities while training and where they tend to remain.
Davidson says the third part of the solution is staff retention and that requires incentives which could be financial, to stay in rural communities as well as career opportunities.
In another significant move for rural health services, the RGPN is joining other rural health groups to form a new collective organisation Hauora Taiwhenua Rural Health Network.
To be launched in Parliament on June 28, it brings together nine rural health chapters that includes rural midwifery, rural health research and education, and rural allied health.
Davidson says the new organisation will continue to advocate for the health of rural New Zealanders.
“We have been working through a period of great change with the implementation of the Pae Ora Health Futures Bill and the overhaul of the health system.”
Davidson says the network’s board saw a need to ensure the rural health voice was still being heard, given an increasing number of health-related voices were drowning it out.
“The network and our partners believed if we came together with a unified voice and combined our ideas, we would be in a stronger position to influence change.”