Health providers impacted by disasters must be considered essential services

Australian Medical Association

The AMA has called for private and public health care services to be offered immediate financial support and resources to rebuild following disasters.

Last week health leaders, including AMA President Professor Stephen Robson and AMA NSW President Dr Michael Bonning visited Lismore for an emergency health summit to urge the state and federal governments to immediately support healthcare services in the flood-devastated region.

Professor Robson and Dr Bonning were joined by representatives of the Pharmacy Guild, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia, the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine, the NSW Rural Doctors Network and the Rural Doctors Association of NSW, with all organisations calling for immediate grant funding to affected healthcare providers.

The disaster in Lismore and Northern Rivers communities damaged the premises of 25 primary care services including medical practices, dental surgeries, and a pharmacy with many not insured for flood, as the cover was unavailable or unaffordable.

Recovery for these businesses has been slow and difficult, with business owners unable to access sufficient or timely grant funding. Many are unable to resume pre-flood activity because of the damage to their premises, which has affected their ongoing income.

Given this financial instability, many health care business owners are considering closing their premises and leaving the area, which would have a significant impact on health care for residents.

Rural and regional populations already face worse health care outcomes than people living in metropolitan areas and closing services would only exacerbate this health inequity.

Events like the Lismore floods are a stark reminder of the human toll of a warming climate. Flooding disasters present immediate health risks including through contaminated and unsafe drinking water, diminished infection control and drowning. Longer-term health risks are also exacerbated due to the impact on community health services as well as the long-term mental health impacts for survivors.

Climate disasters compound existing inequities. In flood prone areas such as the Northern Rivers region, interruptions to ongoing health care for diverse members of the community including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, people living with a disability, disadvantaged socio-economic groups, the elderly, and culturally and linguistically diverse groups can have serious health consequences.

Rural communities have also been hardest hit by the current GP shortages with growing workloads and decreasing interest in the specialty among the next generation of doctors. Financial support should be provided to rural GPs to ensure their practice infrastructure and medical equipment can be quickly restored and replaced after disasters.

GPs are often the only source of access to health services in rural and remote settings. It is crucial for the government to provide all the support that’s needed to retain doctors and their practices in these areas.

/AMA/AusMed News. This material from the originating organization/author(s) may be of a point-in-time nature, edited for clarity, style and length. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s).