Rural communities and the rural health workforce will continue to have an independent advocate following the Australian Government’s announcement to continue and extend the Office of the National Rural Health Commissioner.

The Office will take a broader approach to rural health, and will help deliver the Government’s key reforms and targeted rural health priorities to support practical change for communities.

Federal Nationals Regional Health Minister Mark Coulton said it was vital the Office, established in 2017, continued as an ongoing feature of the Government’s commitment to improving health outcomes for rural Australians.

“Today, we are extending the Office of the Rural Health Commissioner so it may build on the work of inaugural Commissioner, Professor Paul Worley, and maintain the confidence of vulnerable rural communities facing doctor shortages and higher burden of disease,” Mr Coulton said.

“The Nationals in Government have shown we are willing to tackle head-on the challenges of health services in rural and regional Australia, including through the $550 million Stronger Rural Health Strategy, and continuing the Office is a key component of our long-term approach to rural health policy.

“This is all part of our plan to make regional Australia a better place to work, live and raise a family.

“The Office will also support the Government’s ongoing rural response to COVID-19, advising on the impact COVID is having on the health workforce in regional, rural, and remote communities.

“I’ve also expanded the remit of the Office to include the appointment of Deputy Commissioners who will play a critical role supporting the National Rural Health Commissioner and provide expertise across a range of vital rural health disciplines including Indigenous health, nursing and allied health.”

Professor Paul Worley, whose term will end in June, has undertaken the role since November 2017, when the Government established the office as a key part of a range of rural health reforms.

“Professor Worley’s leadership and engagement with the health sector and local communities across rural Australia has been integral to developing a path forward for major rural health reforms,” Mr Coulton said.

“He has demonstrated his energy and passion to deliver on the objectives of the inaugural office through brokering the landmark Collingrove Agreement and leading the development of the National Rural Generalist Pathway.

“These achievements and the substantial body of work to support rural workforce and the rural training pathway has underpinned the Government’s decision to continue the Office as an important resource to meet the unique needs of rural and remote communities.

“I want to acknowledge and thank Professor Worley for his leadership establishing the office and his profound commitment to championing rural practise.”

Professor Worley said it has been a great privilege to serve the people of rural and remote Australia as their Commissioner over the past two and a half years.

“We have worked together across communities and professions. We have integrated the latest research evidence with a holistic understanding of health care learned from our Indigenous custodians,” Professor Worley said.

“We have affirmed the quality of rural clinicians and the collegiality, courage and creativity of rural people, even in the face of natural disasters and persisting inequities of access to health care, particularly for those who live in remote Australia.

“The support of Government for the paradigm shifting solutions we have developed gives us cause for great optimism. I now look forward to new opportunities to continue my work to expand the horizons of remote and rural health care and education.”

The new Office will have the capacity to undertake targeted projects to improve rural health access and sustainable models of care.

“We need to ensure the various initiatives the Government has in place are flexible and respond to the unique needs of communities,” Mr Coulton said.

“The rapid reforms we’ve made to telehealth due to COVID-19 demonstrate the opportunity to better utilise technology and connectivity when it comes to healthcare delivery and medical training.

“My vision is to see regional healthcare and training models which integrate local health, disability and aged care services to respond to the specific challenges faced by communities. Going forward the Office will help Government to identify opportunities to develop more-flexible models.

“Location no longer needs to be a determinant of access to quality health services and care, we just need to take a fresh look to how we can support and deliver sustainable and modern health services.”

Legislation to continue the Office will be introduced as soon as possible and a new Commissioner will be engaged from July 1, 2020.