Farmers need to look after themselves

Digital farm health to benefit farmers and rural areas


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DIGITAL HEALTH: National Centre for Farm Health, director, Professor Susan Brumby spoke at the Australian Farm Institute Digital Farmers Conference about how digital technology can improve health.

DIGITAL HEALTH: National Centre for Farm Health, director, Professor Susan Brumby spoke at the Australian Farm Institute Digital Farmers Conference about how digital technology can improve health.

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Digital technology could benefit farmer health

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WHILE FARMERS are the first to look after others, they often neglect themselves, particularly when it comes to their health. 

Access and advances in digital technology could be the key to overcoming some of the barriers to rural and remote health care, particularly for those on farm. 

Speaking at the Australia Farm Institute (AFI) Digital Farmers conference, National Center for Farm Health, director, Professor Susan Brumby said farmers and rural and remote populations in general have poorer health outcomes.

The further you live away from a health service that can assist you, the earlier you need to get going - Professor Susan Brumby

“They have shorter lives, higher levels of disease and injury, poorer access to services and they use those services less,” she said. 

However, Prof Brumby was optimistic, saying the biggest growth area in medicine is medical technology, citing three-dimensional printing, tele-health and apps as examples which could positively impact on farmers and those in rural and remote areas. 

AFI, executive director, Richard Heath said the technology that enables digital agriculture doesn’t stop at the farm gate. 

“It is the same technology that is connecting us in so many other ways and driving all sorts of benefits for rural communities, not just farm businesses,” he said. 

Not just the farmer

Prof Brumby said her experience was when a farmer or agricultural worker became unwell, the impact is acutely felt in four areas.

“One is the farmer themself, with cost of travel, cost of getting services and the pain and suffering,” she said.

Why do we think this is okay, and why haven't ween been able to integrate health well being and safety into our everyday business how it pertains to agriculture? - Professor Susan Brumby

“Secondly, the actual family impact, whether they have to step up and add an additional burden of caring for those people.

“Plus picking up jobs on the farm that they may not be suited to do, particularly children.”

Prof Brumby said a third area was the actual farm business impact, while the fourth was to the community. 

“When things are very tightly geared if your key person becomes unwell or incapacitated it has a flow on effect,” she said.

“Farmers are always helping other people, so your community impact is acutely felt, particularly in vulnerable communities.”

At risk

Prof Brumby said in her experience as a health professional and someone who farmed for 15 years it was very apparent the demographic had a problem. 

“If I go into any group of farmers and ask them, how many people do you know that have died prematurely,” she said. 

“From either an injury on the farm, suicide, not getting help quickly enough for a cancer or being misdiagnosed.

“Most farmer groups of 15 or 20 farmers will put up two hands.

“What I want you to think about, I don't know any other occupation in civilian life where that is true.

“Why do we think this is okay, and why haven't ween been able to integrate health well being and safety into our everyday business how it pertains to agriculture?” 

Prof Brumby said for major risk factors such as smoking, alcohol use and obesity were higher in farmers. 

“Farmers are always the first to go and help other people but they are pretty poor at taking help themselves,” she said. 

Prof Brumby said farmers also had lower levels of exercise, a trend likely to continue with increased mechanisation, as well as a higher rate of suicide. 

“Unsurprisingly, when we actual look at total death rates being age standardised, you will find people in remote, very remote and outer regional and even inner regional are above the Australian average for premature death,” she said. 

What is being done

Prof Brumby said farmers could gain benefits by using wearable health products such as heart monitors.

"Farming people are great observers, but not so much of themselves,” she said. 

“You know the condition of your cattle, you know your EBV levels, you know your moisture in your pastures.

“But just thinking about actually observing yourself.”

Prof Brumby said the National Farm Centre for Farm Health was using the internet to improve health outcomes amongst farmers.

“We had a very successful project called the Ripple Effect,” she said.

“Particularly around suicide and stigma, particularly targeted at rural males, 30 to 64.

“Having them use digital stories to help communicate.

“It was very much about farmers helping farmers.”

Prof Brumby said telehealth, using digital communications to provide health services across a distance, was a game changer. 

“Telehealth can save people significant amounts of time by allowing them to access specialists from their local surgery with a nurse practitioner carrying out the procedure,” she said. 

“We have also been using it for stroke care, one of the things we know with farmers, if they are having chest pain they do nothing.”

Get to hospital

Prof Brumby said if people could take home one piece of information, it was that if a heart attack or stroke was suspected they get moving straight away. 

“Every minute is heart muscle,” she said. 

“The further you live away from a health service that can assist you, the earlier you need to get going. 

“Our farming populations tend to do exactly the opposite, the further you live away, the longer you tend to wait.

“It is similar if you have a stroke.

“You have to be able to have a thromoboletic within four hours of first having a stroke.

“That will dissolve the clot and give you the very best chance. 

“To get that, you need to get moving.”

Online psychological services

Prof Brumby said the centre had been involved in trying to get psychological services online.

“At the moment, to get medical benefits, you need to have two face to face visits, sometimes it is just not possible to get there in person,” she said. 

“So we are working hard to make sure you can access a psychologist, anytime, online, after hours, even if it is the middle of the night.

“This is a whole new way of delivering services.”

Professor Brumby is a director of the National Centre for Farm Health, based 300 kilometres west of Melbourne in Hamilton, Victoria. 

The National Centre for Farm Health website can be found at https://www.farmerhealth.org.au/

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