Regional Health services

Wednesday June 15, 2022

Mr BELL (Mount Gambier) (11:27): I rise to support the motion and commend the member for Narungga for getting it on the Notice Paper, particularly at No. 1—a very good effort from a good Independent member of parliament. In Mount Gambier, the state's second largest city, there are numerous issues around health. Almost weekly there is correspondence with my office or people stop me in the street to talk about an experience that either they have had or have been involved in the health system, so it is certainly something that needs continual and ongoing attention. I am confident in the minister and his experience and that those issues will be addressed over time.

There are people like Rebecca Kurzman, who has contacted me several times around occupational therapists and the lack of access her six-year-old daughter has had in that area, and even telehealth being delayed. It is in two-week blocks and almost like a drip-feed out: you cannot be seen in this two weeks, then of course the appointment comes up and then in two weeks' time it is cancelled and another one is made for another two weeks henceforth. There is also Lesley Braithwaite, who needs specialist cancer treatment, and part of that is not covered by the Patient Assistance Transport Scheme.

Certainly, there are many local issues that we will continue to fight on. An issue of great concern, which has been raised in here before, is the attraction and retention of professional health staff to our area. I think of smaller areas and the difficulty that they would also be having, because if the state's second largest city is facing issues in terms of attracting and retaining doctors and the allied health professions then that will be magnified in other areas.

To give some context, I asked a question of the minister on 1 June this year about why the COVID-19 ward was closed in Mount Gambier. He indicated that, in effect, the hospital was running with a shortage of 70 full-time equivalent staff. That is a massive number of people. In fact, very few industries would be able to run with 70 full-time equivalents out of action on a normally fully functioning roster. It has been in the paper recently that we have had Code Whites.

I then look across the broader Limestone Coast region to Penola, Naracoorte and Keith, which had been a continuing issue of great concern for the local community. It is pleasing to see that the incoming Labor government has made some serious attempts at addressing some of those issues, in particular with $9.5 million for the Keith hospital and health service. Quite frankly, that is the type of commitment that I would have expected four years earlier. Everybody has known that it was an ongoing cause of concern, and to have a budgeted commitment now—it is in the budget—of $9.5 million is fantastic for the Upper South-East or the Upper Limestone Coast area.

Obviously, $8 million for the Naracoorte hospital is welcome news for a facility that needs urgent attention, and the emergency department will be the beneficiary of that commitment. There is $24 million for the Mount Gambier hospital, which comprises $8 million for the emergency department and $11.4 million for mental health beds. I will flag with the minister that I would like to see some rejigging of that. There is no point having beds sitting there if you do not have the staff and trained professionals to support and treat those suffering mental health issues.

My greatest emphasis with mental health and all health-related issues is early intervention, so repurposing some of that $11.4 million into early intervention so that issues can be addressed earlier instead of waiting until they hit an acute stage and the person ends up in the Mount Gambier hospital. There is $7.4 million for additional paramedics. Again, that is a very good commitment. There is also $4.6 million for drug and alcohol services in Mount Gambier. If we want to talk about the most prevalent drug out there that causes great community damage and personal damage, it is of course alcohol. I am glad that we have a focus on addressing that in the state's second largest city.

I am very pleased with the Malinauskas Labor government and the commitment they have made to health in the Limestone Coast. I think it is long overdue, and it will go some way to addressing perhaps some of the physical structures around health, but we keep getting back to staffing and attracting people to regions.

A lot of work can be done around revitalising our regions. A cooperative between the federal, state and local councils to promote the benefits of relocating to a regional area, whether it is cost of housing, lifestyle, a great place to bring up kids—all of that type of stuff—really needs to be promoted across Australia and across the world. I think we could have a targeted drive to revitalise and repopulate our regional areas.

Just employing one doctor in a small regional town is not the answer, because we find that that person is on duty, whether officially or unofficially, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks of the year, and of course their burnout rate is quite high. It has to be much greater than that. Some ideas I have had floating around include, firstly, the Patient Assistance Transport Scheme needs more money. People in the regions deserve exactly the same standard of care as those living anywhere else in our state.

The Royal Flying Doctor Service is flying to Mount Gambier three times a day with empty planes on the way down and full planes on the way up, which means that a number of people, once they have finished their treatment, are left to find their own way back to Mount Gambier. There is a return service three times a day. The facilities at the Royal Flying Doctor Service are amazing and they would be waiting in comfort until that next flight goes down to Mount Gambier. Having those planes full on the way back to Mount Gambier provides a better service of care for those who need to come up for treatment.

I would like to see the government work collaboratively with the commonwealth and look at a bonded doctors scheme, very similar to what used to happen with bonded teachers, where there are large incentives to help pay for university courses, but those people would be bonded back to regions for a period of time, whether it is four, six or whatever number of years is appropriate.

Of course, our kids need to be supported earlier in schools. Country kids more than likely will return to the country once they have finished their degree, so supporting country kids with early intervention in schools, with career pathways, government support to help pay for it, means that we can see country kids becoming country doctors and returning back to country. I commend the member for Narungga for this very important motion.