Global Agriculture

Efforts needed to improve health care access in rural and regional Australia

14 August 2023, Australia: When it comes to liveability in our regions and communities, for us at Bayer, it starts with healthcare and ensuring that no Australian is left behind when it comes to healthcare access.

We are an active advocate in support of better access to health services and treatments for Australians living and working in rural Australia.

That’s why I was honoured to have come together with leaders from right across the country to discuss some of the biggest issues facing regional Australia at this year’s Daily Telegraph Bush Summit held in Tamworth on August 11, 2023. News Corp’s national Bush Summit provides an important platform for us to discuss, highlight and advocate for those living in our regions – a voice too often marginalised and pushed to the side.

Seven million Australians live in rural and remote areas – that’s more than a quarter of our population.[1] It might sound obvious but, for these people and communities to thrive, we need to strengthen access to services and infrastructure and, importantly, to healthcare.

While rural and regional communities deserve the same level of healthcare as people living in our cities, unfortunately this is not always the case with people outside of the city often having significantly poorer health outcomes.[2]

I hear first-hand the impact that living in the bush has on patients, farmers, and our customers. Seeing a GP has become harder and more expensive and often hospitals, clinics and health hubs are hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometres away.

On top of that, the issues and challenges that come with working on the land have a profound impact on the mental health and wellbeing of these Aussies, many facing a range of stressors unique to living outside major cities.[3] I don’t need to recite statistics on this for us to understand the gravity of what poor mental health can lead to. Just as we need to address the GP shortage, we also need to improve access to mental health services in the bush.

There’s no magic answer on how we can bridge the gap but I believe ensuring our communities are healthy is the best way to start.

But what are ‘healthy communities?

Healthy communities are thriving communities. They are strong communities. They have stable and equitable access to quality healthcare. They have full shelves of fresh produce, and they receive their fair share of investments and support so they can grow and flourish into the future.

We cannot have a thriving rural and regional Australia unless it’s healthy – and that’s where we need to start.

At a company level, many of our people live and work across rural and regional Australia – some are even farmers themselves. So, for us, ensuring that our communities are healthy and resilient is critical.

I am a proud advocate for finding solutions to these challenges our rural communities are facing. It is important to discuss these issues facing our nation, but real change will come from implementing effective solutions to ensure equitable affordable and accessible health care for all Australians.

We can support Australian’s living in rural areas by focusing on the gaps in our current systems, including:

  • Increasing access to telehealth. Telehealth has been transformational to Australia’s healthcare system and has played a critical role in ensuring the continuity of thousands of Australian patients in the bush. Telehealth allows people in these communities to consult a healthcare provider by phone or video and get the healthcare they need, where and when they need it. At Bayer we are also entering a new era of technology with the emergence of teletrials, decentralised clinical trials, which will expand access to breakthrough medicines in rural and remote areas. But it needs the investment in mobile and internet access in remote and outer regions.
  • Investment in Medicare. Medicare remains a vital component of Australia’s healthcare system. It is important that we remain focused on the populations which it was designed to serve. Hence, we’re hopeful the significant investment in the last federal budget in strengthening Medicare and bulk billing incentives will be of particular benefit to people who live in regional, rural, and remote communities, where access to primary care services is limited
  • Addressing the GP shortage. Workforce and labour shortages are acutely felt outside of the city in many sectors, but this is especially critical in health. On the GP front, only 16% of medical students go into general practice, where we understand 50% is needed.[4] Exploring measures to ease the GP shortage will make general practice more attractive to medical students, including streamlining processes for international medical graduates and investing to make regional communities attractive places to work and live; incentive frameworks for young Australians; and investment in supporting secondary school students to choose health careers.
  • Making new medicines available. It is one thing to have more GPs to prescribe the medicines, but we also need the best medicines available. Medicine innovation is evolving at an unprecedented pace. Breakthrough innovations are becoming much more targeted and customized. As an organisation that develops new medicines to bring to market, we want to ensure with such innovations we do not leave any Australians behind, including those in the bush. By way of example, precision medicines, such as those that Bayer develops, have the ability to reach the specific genomic drivers of disease. This means that in some cases the healthcare provided can also be more targeted. Are we looking into a world where access to innovative treatments could delay or reduce hospitalisations, lessen the need for chemotherapy, radiotherapy or dialysis?
  • Improving access to mental health services in the bush. Grassroots programs have been proven to have a real impact in our communities. For the past five years, Bayer has partnered with The Fly Program to deliver The Bayer Big Fish Challenge, a friendly fishing competition for teams of rural Australians to help raise awareness and funds in support of rural mental wellbeing. The funds raised allow the Fly Program to run multiple 4-day mental wellness retreats for rural men and women in need of reprieve. 
  • Supporting our regional communities through our agricultural business. Our innovative product pipeline is underpinned by our significant investment in research and development locally. We have Crop Science and Vegetable Seeds R&D facilities that operate in our rural communities employing local talent in Toowoomba (QLD), Locharba (NSW) and Virginia (SA). And we partner with local innovators, research bodies and commercial partners to bring Bayer-led innovations to Australia’s farms.

Our people are dedicated to the communities in which they live and work across in Australia. Bayer is uniquely positioned to deliver some of the solutions needed to improve not only the lives but also the livelihoods of those in our regional, rural and remote communities.

But, we acknowledge these gaps and these challenges are bigger than us. They are bigger than any one company and any one state. These are national issues that deserve to be spoken about – not just yearly at great events like the Daily Telegraph Bush Summit, but throughout the year, from dinner tables in homes to the dispatch box in Parliament House.

We are proud to be an active advocate in support of better access to health services for our country. And I plan to keep this conversation going.

Ashraf Al-Ouf, Chief Executive Officer, Bayer Australia and New Zealand

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