Senate debates

Tuesday, 14 August 2012


Rural and Regional Health Services

7:29 pm

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to speak this evening about an issue of critical importance for those living in Western Australia's Great Southern region, centred around the town of Albany. It is no secret that those living in regional areas face challenges that are not always well understood by those living in our cities. Some of these challenges are the result of nature, such as droughts and bushfires, and some are the result of changing demographics, such as an ageing population. Others, I am afraid to say, are the result of bad government policy—the carbon tax being the most recent example of bad policy foisted by this government on the people of the Great Southern region, who will see their cost of living rise even more when the tax is applied to road transport in a couple of years.

The often-discussed tyranny of distance is another challenge facing those living in regional communities, and that is the one I am going to focus on this evening. Serious illnesses do not discriminate between those who live in urban areas and those who live in regional areas; however, the level of treatment available and access to that treatment often do. Of course, state-of-the art treatment and equipment tend to arrive first in our cities. That is where the bulk of the population reside and it is where many of the specialists who operate the equipment are based. However, it may surprise many senators to hear about the extent of the gap that exists between urban areas and regional communities.

For instance, magnetic resonance imaging machines are probably taken for granted by many medical professionals and patients in city areas. MRI has a number of distinct advantages over the diagnostic methods, particularly CT scans. MRI provides significantly better diagnostic accuracy in certain areas than CT scanning. This is particularly the case in relation to breast cancer, brain and spinal cord problems, bone and joint issues and, most notably, the diagnosis of brain tumours. Importantly, MRI poses no risk from radiation exposure, whereas CT scans do carry such a risk. This is particularly the case when patients require repeat scans, which can lead to a build-up of radiation and increase a person's risk of developing cancers in the future. From this brief overview alone, it is clear that MRI is a desirable diagnostic tool; yet, unfortunately, it is not a tool that is available locally to those living in Western Australia's Great Southern region.

Since taking my seat in this place I have spent a good deal of time travelling around the communities that make up this special part of Western Australia. In the course of those travels I have been fortunate to meet with several medical practitioners operating across the Great Southern region. In regional areas doctors are significant community figures who are often called upon to go above and beyond the call of duty in meeting the needs of their patients and dealing with challenges that their city counterparts would not ordinarily face. In the course of my conversations with local doctors, most of them have made clear the desperate need for an MRI machine in Albany to service that town and the surrounding parts of the Great Southern region.

At present, those living in the region who require an MRI scan need to travel to Perth. Perth is a five-hour drive from Albany—or an expensive flight. Many of the patients are elderly and, self-evidently, not in the best of health. If patients are making the drive, it is certainly too much to do as a day trip. So, in addition to fuel costs, there is the cost of at least one night's accommodation in Perth—not to mention time away from family and employment. It all starts to add up very quickly. I am not talking about a few isolated cases when I speak about those who are undertaking this travel. Doctors have told me that they send anywhere from seven to 20 patients per week to Perth for MRI scans. David Ingram, a general surgeon at Albany Regional Hospital, told me that many local patients are ordered to have CT scans even though MRI would be a better health option for them. He also advised me that many patients have a CT scan locally but end up having to travel to Perth to get MRI scan because the CT scan has not yielded the necessary information. This results in a double cost to the federal government.

Dr Anthony King, who practises in the small town of Kojonup, contacted me to express his support for an MRI machine located in Albany. He said in his letter:

As a GP, we can order an MRI scan for any patient. But the patient will not obtain a Medicare refund of the cost or part of the cost of the procedure. As GPs, we are forced to first refer the patient to a specialist who can then endorse/order an MRI scan, which will then attract a benefit payable under the Medicare Act. This system is completely stupid and costly in a region where there are very few specialists and where solo rural GPs are in effect doing a lot of the things specialists would do in a city environment.

Dr Kirsten Auret, of the Rural Clinical School of Western Australia, advises:

Within our Cancer and Palliative Care Services, there have been innumerable times when we have needed to send patients to Perth for MRI scanning. The requirement to transfer them away, when they are very sick and potentially in their last few weeks of life, makes clinical decision-making for doctors, patients and families extremely difficult.

Numerous other doctors in the region have contacted me to express similar views.

Improvements in health care across the Great Southern region are coming. The Liberal-led state government of Premier Colin Barnett is delivering real health outcomes for those living in the Great Southern region. The biggest is the construction of the $135 million Albany Health Campus, which will replace the former Albany Regional Hospital. The new hospital will establish the Albany Health Campus as a regional resource centre for the Great Southern region and will service more than 50,000 local residents. It will be the largest hospital development ever undertaken in regional Western Australia, and the Liberal-National government is committed to delivering the new building as soon as possible.

With this investment in a new hospital, more than 80 per cent of patients from the Great Southern region will be able to be treated in Albany, closer to where they live. The new facility will include a new, much larger emergency department, additional mental health beds and expanded renal dialysis, palliative care and cancer services. As part of this new development, Great Southern Radiology has applied to Minister Plibersek for full Medicare eligibility for MRI based on potential areas of need. I would say to the minister that the Liberal-led WA state government has clearly done its part and it is time for the federal government to come to the party and provide this critical service for the Great Southern region.

It would be a shame indeed if this magnificent new facility were not able to offer the best diagnostic and treatment opportunities available to its patients as a result of the minister not meeting Great Southern Radiology's request. I wish to place on record my very strong support for the application put forward by Great Southern Radiology, and I urge the minister to consider the needs of medical practitioners, patients and their families in the Great Southern region in coming to her decision.