Australia’s goal for a $100 billion agriculture industry within 12 years won’t happen unless a host of potentially paralysing “human capital” issues are addressed in regional communities.
Basic hearing, eyesight, speech and motor skill problems are at least three times as likely to become complex health and learning disorders for children in regional Australia than the national average.
“Vulnerable children who have problems hearing, speaking or holding a pen in their early school years grow into vulnerable adults,” warns Lindsay Cane, the chief executive officer of the 94-year-old rural children’s health service, Royal Far West.
“In rural Australia today we need all hands – and heads – on deck.
Don’t just talk about our national rail and road infrastructure agenda, we must talk about maximising our human capital
“The federal government’s desire to see the value of agricultural production lift 57 per cent to $100m by 2030 will not work if governments cannot ensure our children are not growing up vulnerable.
The National Farmers Federation and Agribusiness Australia lobby groups have also just signed a Memorandum of Understanding in Canberra to align their own efforts towards the $100b goal.
“But don’t just talk about our national rail and road infrastructure agenda requirements, we must talk about maximising our human capital and making it a fundamental investment priority,” Ms Cane said.
Rural Australia needed children to grow up confident and clever, using computers, working together, socialising and making smart decisions.
In contrast, however, many regional areas had high unemployment levels, disproportionate contact with the justice system and rising mental health problems, partly because vulnerable young children’s developmental health and learning issues were largely invisible to the mainstream health sector, then compounded as children grew older, struggling at school and socially.
Broad spectrum problem
Developmental health problems were not limited to specific groups in the rural community – vulnerable children grew up on farms, in towns and had different ethnic backgrounds.
“We are not generating the capacity regional and remote Australia needs,” Ms Cane told the Isolated Children’s Parents’ Association federal conference.
“It’s not rocket science. If we don’t ensure a child can hold a pencil on their first day at school, speak well enough to tell a story or make friends, life is not going to get any easier for them.”
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After almost a century of providing health services for thousands of rural children who visit its Sydney base at Manly beach twice yearly, Royal Far West has launched a Telecare service linking its 65 clinical specialists with selected students across NSW and Queensland through weekly consultations via a school computer link.
The charity will spend about $20m on distance health delivery, capacity building and advocacy work from Lord Howe Island in the east to Fitzroy Crossing in West Australia in 2018-19.
Initially focused on NSW students through its historic ties with the state’s education department, Royal Far West, in recent years, has partnered with community health groups, the Catholic education service and health insurer, Medicare Private to expand its services interstate.
Pouring money into unemployment support or education is fine, but we’re not really making good use of that investment if we don’t tackle our problem areas when children are three or six years old.
About 85pc of children supported through its Telecare consultation program into 102 schools have exceeded their therapy goals, with 90pc of parents saying they have noticed positive changes too, without needing to travel vast distances to see clinical specialists.
The service has also adapted Telecare to provide “virtual” school counsellor services to students in 10 western NSW sites where trained volunteers or staff could not be found.
“We’re now turning up the gas to expand – we’d like to ramp up our various services to cover about 15,000 kids,” Ms Cane said.
“However, we ran a deficit budget last year,so extending our work is dependent on finding corporate sponsorship, government project funding or some other source of support.
“Pouring money into unemployment support or education is fine, but we’re not really making good use of that investment if we don’t tackle our problem – when children are three or six years old.”
Economic dividend awaits
The potential benefit to Australia’s economic wealth from better dealing with vulnerable children’s developmental health issues was staggering, she said.
Researchers calculated a gross domestic product improvement in Canada of up to $3.2 trillion over the next 60 years by cutting its child health vulnerability figures in half.
An average 22pc of Australian children are considered vulnerable in one or more of the key developmental health domains, which range from physical health, to speech and social competency.
In northern Sydney the figures average about 4pc, blowing out to 33pc in Coonamble in Central West NSW, and up to 55pc in Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory.
More than 100,000 country children currently need developmental health help.
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