Heart of Australia

1 October 2014

Senator O’SULLIVAN (Queensland—Nationals Whip in the Senate) (12:45): I am pleased to be able to give the very first of senators’ statements in this place under the new arrangements and on a topic that I am certain will enjoy the support and encouragement of all sides of politics, regardless of our particular partisan interests.

I rise to speak about the advent of an initiative known in my homestate of Queensland as the Heart of Australia. This project embodies the most innovative approach to front-line specialist medical services to be delivered in generations. It specifically aims at assisting those Australians whose access to medical facilities of a standard that is taken for granted by many of us is threatened by our nation’s vast distances. This initiative is the brainchild of Dr Rolf Gomes and his wife, Kylie Gomes. They have facilitated the establishment of the nation’s first mobile specialist cardiac health service clinic. Whilst this is unique to Queensland, I fully anticipate that this project will operate in some ways as a pilot. I know that it has attracted great interest across our nation, and I expect that health professionals all over the country and those who are responsible for the development and implementation of public health policy will be watching this initiative very closely in order that it may be duplicated, not just in the way that services to do with cardiovascular disease are delivered but also in the way that a very wide range of medical services can be delivered remotely, with the right amount of planning and support.

Millions of Australian are affected by cardiovascular disease. It is rated as Australia’s biggest killer and, at any given time, it affects the lives of up to 3. million Australians. One of the tragic statistics that goes with cardiovascular disease is that, if you live in rural and regional Australia, you are more inclined to be affected by this disease by about 15 per cent. This is a very significant variation and one that ought to remain of serious concern to all those who develop and implement health policy in our country. If you go to communities where the inhabitants are predominantly our Indigenous Australians then this figure with respect to cardiovascular disease increases once more to levels which I say we should all be embarrassed about.

People living in rural and regional communities have less access to many critical health services. People in regional, rural and remote areas of Australia experience poorer health outcomes than those living in urban areas on just about any test that is applied. Life expectancy in regional areas of our country is one to two years lower and in remote areas it is up to seven years lower than the average in our major cities. These stats are compounded by the fact that people who live in regional areas and whose life is tragically affected by trauma injuries do not get the critical treatment within that important time span post the event because of remoteness, distance or availability of services. People in regional, rural and remote communities have limited access to primary healthcare services and are more likely to be admitted to hospitals for conditions which could have potentially been prevented through the earlier provision of non-hospital services and care.

In my maiden speech in this place, I made clear the point that over decades the economic rationalist policies of many administrations—and I think I commented at the time that bad policy has no respect for the political incumbent, so they have been decisions taken by governments of all walks of life—have reduced all levels of services in a very critical way to many hundreds, if not thousands, of our small communities across the country. I was quite specific about the affects of this policy on my homestate of Queensland, but I am sure it applies equally to most of the rural and regional areas in the country. Over time we reduced people’s access to services. We closed the courthouses. We pulled up the railway lines. We closed the schools. Also, at that time, we gave licence to the private sector banks, the real estate agencies and the stock and station agencies to leave these small communities and districts. One of the most critical sectors to leave was health services. Indeed, there was a time when women who lived in the many dozens of small communities in my home state could go through their confinement in their community. They could prepare for the delivery of their family member and, indeed, give birth to their child in those communities —but now that is not the case. In fact, many of the communities that at one time were properly staffed with health professionals now have none at all. It means that people in those small communities—and, as importantly, the very big districts that they service— now have to travel hundreds of kilometres to get simple primary health care, such as the setting of a broken bone or some other treatment that might be critical to their condition.

It is within that context that I have been proudly, along with quite a number of others, supporting Dr Gomes in his Heart of Australia initiative. It is a superinnovative project that includes a massive trailer. This would be of interest to you, Senator Sterle. I understand it is the longest trailer, at 29 metres, to be commissioned to go on the road. Its launch will be on Friday morning in my hometown of Toowoomba, where I will proudly be representing our government and the parliament generally. This service will take state-of-the-art cardiovascular diagnostic equipment to all of the small regional and rural community hubs. Effectively, an individual—who otherwise may have taken weeks upon weeks to get referrals and to travel from their community to larger centres like Townsville and Brisbane—will now be able to have these tests done right there at home, maybe only a block from where they live, if they happen to live in or near one of these community hubs.

There is evidence that many people on the land often put off testing for cardiovascular disease. They put chest pains and chest pressures down to strains from work. They wait until the shearing is completed or the mustering is done or whichever of those heavy chores for people struggling on the land is finished before they get checked. In doing that, they are taking a gamble. As of Friday, that all changes. They will now have regular and very accessible opportunities for their GP to refer them to this mobile clinic, for want of a better description. If their cardiovascular condition is of a serious nature, they will have access to life-saving treatment.

I commend this initiative to this chamber and to our government generally. I will be seeing that my government pays close attention to observing this trial and the implementation of this service, because I think it has enormous application. I wish to close by saying that, in the fullness of time, Dr Rolf Gomes will be recognised as a pioneer in this very important space.