A 700 kilometre round trip to take a sick child to visit a pediatrician and a $500 family travel bill to take a kid to occupational therapy are just two examples of the dire lack of services that confront regional and remote families across the country.
Country kids are far more likely to face health challenges, and the gap is widening.
That’s the alarming finding from the Invisible Children report, launched by the Royal Far West charity at Parliament House in Canberra on Wednesday night.
“There’s a huge gap in regional Australia that you don’t see in the cities," Royal Far West chief executive Lindsay Cane said.
“Our report shows the impact this has, the mental health toll on isolated parents is immense. Think of a mother trying to get services for her child, the family trying to pay the costs of accessing treatment.”
One in three country children are unable to access the health services they need. Rural and remote children are five times more likely to suffer developmental problems compared to city kids.
The Invisible Children report also highlighted the toll on regional people from excessive travel, long wait times, irregular appointments, lack of support to navigate a complex health system.
Royal Far West said telehealth services were key to closing the gap.
The organisation works to improve access to care for children with developmental challenges in rural and regional communities.
Ms Cane said told the nation’s lawmakers that federal government had invested nearly $100 million in telehealth through the Royal Flying Doctor Service, mental health services and GP funding via Medicare.
But sadly children aged 0 to 12 have been overlooked.
“Vulnerable kids grow into vulnerable adults without the right care, we have to intervene early,” Ms Cane said.
The Invisible Children report found Australia's gross domestic product growth will be down over the next 60 years if assistance for at-risk regional kids' development isn't improved.
Royal Far West representatives came to Canberra to emphasise the point that poor access to health services for regional children makes them more likely to end up homeless, unemployed, incarcerated and with relationship difficulties.
And that a lack of services impacts across the community.
"The health of carers and teachers is important and we have to look after them too," Ms Cane said.
Kids with development problems are especially challenging for young teachers who often start their careers in country schools with limited staff and expert assistance.
"Too often they're incorrectly labelled bad kids, and it can wear down young teachers. Unfortunately, teachers will leave town if they professionally despair. But it can be fixed," Ms Cane said.
Royal Far West said telehealth could initially be rolled out through primary schools, where the National Broadband Network had delivered the required internet connectivity.
But the charity would need to more than double the 75 pediatric specialists it has on staff, to employ 200, to begin addressing the problem.
"We have the infrastructure, but not the staff," Ms Cane said.
There aren’t enough health services in regional communities. For example, in very remote Australia, one speech therapist services 767 children. And a remote psychologist has 12 times the clinical load of a city psychologist.
As well as the call for telehealth, Royal Far West made seven pointed recommendations to policy makers.
- Set a national target to reduce developmental vulnerability in rural and remote Australia from 22 per cent to 10pc by 2025
- Invest in pre-school screening and readiness programs
- Prioritise funding for innovative approaches to create access to coordinated pediatricians, allied health and mental health services in regional communities
- Integrate health and disability services for children
- Adopt a broader approach to children’s mental health
- Increase funding for professional development and support for early childhood educators and teachers
- Establish a national program to co-design culturally appropriate service models for children and families Indigenous communities
Last year more than 8000 children, teachers and parents benefited from a Royal Far West service, but it can’t keep up with demand.
Australian Community Media, publisher of this masthead, partnered with Royal Far West and Charles Sturt University to hold talks and gather community feedback from town hall meetings in Macksville, Griffith and Parkes over the past year.