Introduction

Over the past decade, the volume of data available to inform rural health policy has grown dramatically. Much of this data is available in disparate places that can be difficult to locate.

Major sources of data informing rural health policy include:

  • the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW),
  • the Public Health Information Development Unit (PHIDU),
  • the Australian Indigenous HealthInfonet,
  • the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS),
  • the National Health Performance Authority (NHPA) and
  • the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Reform Council,

with many other sources of data available for individual issues.

The former Health Workforce Agency and National Preventative Health Agency also collected data that is used in this book. It is hoped that the Department of Health will continue to maintain and grow these useful data collections.

The purpose of this “little” book is to:

  • round up some of that data into one place;
  • provide up to date and important information for use by policy analysts; and
  • identify problems with existing data, including gaps and inconsistencies.

Why this is important

The health of people living in rural, regional and remote Australia is influenced by a range of complex factors, not just the availability of health services.  The National Rural Health Alliance (the Alliance) believes that health is the product of the environment, society, economy and culture in which we live, and without appropriate consideration of those factors, understanding health inequities and health inequalities is impossible.

Consequently, the data we will seek to describe is data that the Alliance believes should be informing national policy discussion and development.  The data includes:

  • The natural and built environment, for example clean water and adequate housing;
  • The social determinants of health, for example, access to education and work, a sense of control over one’s life, cost of living;
  • Personal risk factors, for example smoking and overweight;
  • Access to health services, for example to primary care and dental care, breast cancer screening;
  • Health outcomes, for example cancer survival rates, recovery from heart attack ;
  • Prevalence and incidence of disease and disability;
  • Aged care.

Typically, data describing the health of people living in rural and remote areas compares average conditions in Major cities with average conditions in a range of other areas (frequently Inner regional, Outer regional, Remote and Very remote areas). However, while averages are useful and easily available, they obscure the fact that some locations in each of these areas are well-off in terms of health in general and access to health services, while other locations are very poorly off. To provide effective policy advice, it is important to be able to discern between such locations.

Sometimes (see PHIDU and other small area data sources), data is available for relatively small areas such as LGAs. Identification of particularly disadvantaged smaller areas (eg specific LGAs) within the broad and generic larger areas (eg Outer regional) would help to further focus much needed help in improving health outcomes in rural and remote areas generally, and also those parts of Major cities which are disadvantaged.

Improving the situation for those in the worst off areas (rather than treating all rural areas as the same) is arguably ethically superior, as well as being likely more expedient in improving average poorer rural and remote health.