The Australian Physiotherapy Association (APA) has called on the Federal Government for stronger national policy action to increase access to rural physiotherapy and allied health services to address unmet patient need.
The APA’s position statement, Equitable Access to Physiotherapy Services for Rural Australians, launched in September, states that all Australians should have access to high quality, locally delivered healthcare.
APA National President Scott Willis said to realise this vision, there is a need for urgent policy reform to address the health inequities and access constraints for the seven million Australians living in rural and remote areas.
“Every community across Australia deserves access to vital health services including physiotherapy services, however, many rural communities have no physiotherapy services contributing to disparities in healthcare.”
“Barriers to the supply of public and community sector physiotherapists is complex and requires significant policy attention. Rural physios work mainly in private practice, often in areas of disadvantage and social and economic inequity, where access to hospitals and even GPs is also limited.”
“These factors impact significantly on the viability of rural practices that face significant challenges in delivering high quality sustainable rural health services – and we need the Government’s help to address this.”
Mr Willis said that rural health reform beyond medicine has been slow and fragmented and the limited response from the Australian Government to the former Rural Health Commissioner, Emeritus Professor Paul Worley’s, report on solutions to access, quality and access of allied health services in regional, rural and remote Australia was disappointing.
“The Government’s Stronger Rural Health Strategy aims to build a sustainable, high quality health workforce that is distributed across Australia however, the incentivised supports within this Strategy are predominantly wrapped around general practice and not allied health.”
“The one key measure that does extend reach towards allied health is the Workforce Incentive Program (WIP) but this a program is poorly targeted and does not support the distribution of the physiotherapy workforce. A Strategy that directly funds GP’s in rural areas to employ physiotherapists is counterproductive as it threatens the practice viability of independent physiotherapy practices already well established in their local communities.”
Mr Willis said the APA’s position statement, Equitable Access to Physiotherapy Services for Rural Australians calls for new funding models to increase rebated allied health services, including targeted skills initiatives to leverage the full capabilities of the allied health workforce.
“Increased funding for physiotherapy and allied health to enable more integrated care would strengthen access to care and ensure a well functioning healthcare system. The patient needs to be the key driver of how care is delivered and the right of physiotherapists to refer to medical specialists would improve the patient journey.”
“Supporting extended scope physiotherapists as primary practitioners able to refer to specialist medical practitioners will better utilise the existing workforce, cut red tape and add value to GPs services enabling them to dedicate more time to clinical care,” he said.
The APA’s statement highlights the significant issues to recruitment and retention of physiotherapists in rural Australia and the need for the recognition of rural practitioners as a highly skilled, supported and valued resource.
“Securing the next generation of rural physiotherapists needs a strong national commitment and investment and while the APA welcomes the Federal Government’s recent focus on the Allied Health workforce through further investments in the Allied Health Rural Generalist training package, a broader ‘rural pipeline’ investment to build capacity is required to provide a flexible framework of entry to rural practice that can be applied at any career stage,” he said.
 Worley, P. (2020, June). Report for the Minister for Regional Health, Regional Communications and Local Government on the Improvement of Access, Quality, and Distribution of Allied Health Services in Regional, Rural and Remote Australia. Office of the National Rural Health Commissioner.
Scott WIllis is available for further comment.
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