One of the most frequently asked questions we get from consumers here at Painaustralia is where can I get the right help? This has been such a common inquiry, that last year we worked hard to launch the National Pain Services Directory.
The new interactive directory launched by Minister Greg Hunt included a geographical location tool that can visually show the pain services nearest to your postcode. The Directory now lists over 200 facilities both public and private, as well as offering the list of services provided by each facility.
Our objective with the Directory was to provide consumers and health professionals with the support they need to make informed decisions around their pain management options and pathways. Yet one of the most striking facts that the Directory highlighted was the enormous swaths of our country where there is no specialised pain support or treatment.
Looking at this data, one would assume that there are practically no people with persistent chronic pain living in our rural and remote areas. Sadly, people who live outside urban areas are 23% more likely to experience back pain, with higher percentages in the 55 to 64 age group. People living regionally are also 30% more likely to have a long-term health condition due to an injury.
This is not a new problem, it is well known that people in rural, regional and remote Australia experience worse health outcomes than their city counterparts. They have less access to services and are exposed to increased health risks. This setting could not be truer when it comes to chronic pain, with both prevention and management resources severely lacking.
Data released by Painaustralia shows that Australians in rural and remote areas tend to experience higher rates of medication prescription, including opioids, likely due to higher prevalence rates of the condition and decreased access to appropriate pain management interventions. Concerningly, GPs in remote Medicare locations were less likely to refer Australians living with chronic pain to another health professional – largely because they are not available, making options for best practice management beyond medication limited.
The dark cloud of COVID-19 has now offered us a small glimmer of a silver lining. After facing resistance for years, the road to telehealth has finally well and truly been opened. The federal government has announced, and implemented, one of the most ambitious health reforms the Australian health sector has seen, a major expansion of telehealth services that has ensured ongoing access to care during these times of social distancing. While the aim may have been to reduce healthcare workers’ and patients’ exposure to infection, it has paved the way for some very welcome changes.
Reports indicate that around 10 million Medicare-funded telehealth services have been provided, either over the phone or via video, a significant majority of which have been provided by GPs and other specialists since the Medicare telehealth items were introduced in March. A recent RACGP survey of almost 1200 GPs found 99 per cent were now offering consultations via phone or video.
These benefits will be most keenly reaped by Australians living in rural and regional Australia. The significant gaps in service access in rural and regional Australia and the high prevalence of comorbid pain and chronic health conditions highlights the need for retaining and fostering telehealth services across these area, and nowhere is this support more needed than in the area of pain management.