The further an Australian lives from an urban centre, the lower their life expectancy. They are also twice as likely to die from preventable illness. The latest research shows that rural men are 2.5 times and women 2.8 times more likely to die from potentially avoidable causes than those in urban areas.

This statistic, along with demographic information, health risk factors, health outcomes, burden of disease, mortality and morbidity and health service funding and access, are some of the data provided in the National Rural Health Alliance Rural Health in Australia Snapshot 2023. The snapshot also provides data on health workforce distribution in rural, regional, and remote Australia.

The health of rural Australians is impacted by disparities in rates of health and behavioural risk factors including higher rates of overweight and obesity, smoking (especially in Indigenous Australians), risky alcohol consumption, some illicit drug use and psychological distress. Poorer diet including inadequate fruit consumption and elevated consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks as well as lower levels of physical activity, particularly strength training are contributing factors. Rural people experience higher rates of family, domestic and sexual violence. The health of rural mothers and babies over their lifetime is also negatively impacted by more women smoking during pregnancy, more babies being born prematurely and lower rates of exclusive breastfeeding.

“The statistics show that the further you are from an urban setting, the more likely you may die of disease due to various factors, including the tyranny of distance and workforce shortages,” said the Alliance Chief Executive Susi Tegen. “Fit for purpose funding is critical to ensure that the necessary policy and infrastructure is in place,” she added.

The Snapshot shows that small rural towns of less than 5000 people, have access to almost 60 per cent fewer health professionals than major cities per capita, indicating continuing workforce and access challenges in rural areas. Major cities have more choice and more General Practitioners and other health practitioners providing primary care compared to large regional centres, small rural towns, remote areas and very remote areas.

Many rural people have no access to primary healthcare services within an hour’s drive from their home. They use Medicare up to 50 per cent less than those in cities, indicating that people rather not go through the difficult process of a long journey and long waiting time to access health care. As a result, the burden of disease in remote areas is 1.4 times that of major cities.

“There is clear evidence that per-person spending on healthcare is not equitable, and that this inequity is contributing to poorer health outcomes in rural areas,” said Ms Tegen.

“The biggest deficits are in accessing primary health care which then leads to higher rates of costly and potentially preventable hospitalisations and increased hospital expenditure. This is a sad reflection on the rest of Australia, when not every citizen has the same access to a basic healthcare need. ”

“We welcome the Government’s reforms and look forward to a rural health system reform that reflects population health need and place-based and led planning and service delivery, to address this discrepancy of health care access.” she said.