Remote population stable, but illness to jump over decade

Australia’s remote population is forecast to grow only marginally in a decade. Yet chronic illness will rise dramatically, with the burden of mental illness forecast to increase by a fifth, if action is not taken to halt current trends.

Health service access in rural regions is also forecast to lag behind metropolitan areas, according to Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) research: From 90 to 100: Planning for the health needs of country Australia in 2028. The report provides health service forecasts form 2018, the RFDS 90th year of operation until 2028, the centenary year of the RFDS.

The forecast shows while the Australian population will grow from 25 million to 29 million in a decade, remote and very remote Australia’s population will grow by an average of only 0.2% each year, from 493,752 to only 504,724 in 2028.

11.8 million Australians currently live with at least one chronic illness, with 2028 forecasts equalling 13.8 million, a national increase of 15.6%. Yet chronic illness prevalence forecast to remain higher in remote Australia than metropolitan areas.

Disability-adjusted life years (DALY), or the number of years lost to ill-health, disability or early death, are forecast to increase in remote areas over the decade to 2028 with:

  • cancer up by 15.6%, from 37.6 to 44 DALYs;
  • mental illness up by 21.6%, from 21.8 to 27.1 DALYs;
  • neurological conditions such as Alzheimers, up by 47.8%, from 13.2 to 21.5 DALYs.

A welcome fall of 22.8% in the burden of cardiovascular disease in remote Australia is forecast, from 37.6 DALYs down to 29.9 in 2028, reflecting improvement in heart attack prevention and treatment in parts of country Australia.

The report forecasts by 2028 remote Australia will have only:

  • a fifth the number of General Practitioners compared to metropolitan areas (43 compared to 255 per 100,000 population);
  • a twelfth of the number of physiotherapists (23 compared to 276 per 100,000 population);
  • half the number of pharmacists (52 as compared to 113 per 100,000 population); and
  • a third the number of psychologists (34 as compared to 104 per 100,000 population).

Nurse and midwifery levels in metropolitan and remote areas by 2028 are forecast to be almost even, with 1,361 per 100,000 population in city areas and 1,259 in remote areas.
A survey of rural clinicians published in the report finds health literacy, mental health services, and improved access to primary care services are priorities for the next decade. The report also forecasts growth in demand for RFDS services by its centenary year in 2028.

RFDS CEO Dr Martin Laverty called the report a call to arms. Dr Laverty said “Chronic illness growth and rural workforce shortage is but a forecast. Investing in country health services and rural health professionals can halt these forecasts from ever being realised. Investing now will save lives and dollars in the long run.”

Looking Ahead: Responding to the Health Needs of Country Australia in 2028 is available here.

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