Parkes mayor Ken Keith is optimistic about the government's new Regional Health Ministerial Advisory Panel and says he will be pushing for a better utilised local hospital, more regional training for health staff and better incentives for doctors to go regional.
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"The issues we've been seeing here aren't unique to the Central West at all, it's all over NSW and we've got to solve it," he said.
Earlier this month, Cr Keith was announced as one of 15 representatives of regional NSW selected to be part of a new advisory panel guiding the NSW Government's response to the parliamentary inquiry into rural and regional health.
Chaired by Richard Colbran, CEO of the NSW Rural Doctors Network, the panel will advise Minister for Regional Health Bronnie Taylor and key government officials on how healthcare, hospital and support services in regional NSW can be improved.
Ms Taylor said the panel will play "an integral role" in the government's work to improve health outcomes for people across rural and regional NSW and she will work closely with the panel to create a new regional health plan, which will be released later this year.
"I felt really delighted and privileged to be invited onto that advisory panel. I'm hoping it will be productive, I'm feeling positive about it," he said.
"Rick Firman, the mayor of Temora, has also been nominated on the panel. So there are a couple of us from the Country Mayors Association executive - that will make sure that the panel is hearing the regional voices of local government."
Last year, Cr Keith presented evidence before the parliamentary committee when they visited Dubbo on May 19. He said a key concern for the people of Parkes and surrounding communities was the "underutilisation" of the new $72.8 million local hospital, which opened in 2015.
"From a Parkes perspective, getting more midwives and getting enough obstetricians and anaesthetists to be able to utilise all our theatres and the maternity section is really important," he said.
Of particular concern was the shutting down of the hospital's maternity service in June 2019 after the retirement of three long-serving GP proceduralists. A midwife-led model was proposed as an interim solution, but the Parkes maternity service remains closed - a situation Cr Keith said is "not acceptable".
Cr Keith said while his role on the panel would require him to "put a much broader hat on" to consider better health outcomes for all of regional NSW, the reopening of the maternity service in Parkes is an outcome he would like to see.
"It's an example of something we need to do, not only in Parkes but in other areas of the state too. Gunnedah is in a similar situation because they're short of midwives and there are many other towns in the same boat," he said.
He said the Parkes Hospital being better utilised would also relieve some pressure on base hospitals in Dubbo and Orange - which both currently have waitlists of well over 1,000 people for non urgent elective surgery, according to the latest health performance data.
"We don't expect to have all the high tech facilities that people might have to go to Orange or Dubbo or Sydney for, but we certainly should be able to get some important first-stage emergency treatment," he said.
"Vital" to the solution, Cr Keith believes, will be creating more opportunities for health staff-in-training - including GPs, nurses and midwives - to spend more time completing internships in regional areas. He also thinks the NSW Government should follow what Victoria is doing in providing free tertiary education for nurses and midwives so as to not lose prospective health staff interstate.
"NSW may well have to match that otherwise we'll see people from Dubbo or Parkes or wherever else decide to take up the offer for free training down in Victoria, and once they move down there they may never come back," he said.
Beyond training and pay incentives for doctors and nurses to go regional - Cr Keith thinks solving the rural healthcare crisis needs a broad approach with more housing and childcare spots available in regional areas for healthcare staff.
"It's all related, communities have to have that livability aspect. It's important to have childcare and good education to go along with it. All the childcare centres here are nearly full even though we opened a new one just six months ago," he said.
Ahead of the panel coming together, Cr Keith has already been meeting with local stakeholders about what they would like to see improved and he will be meeting with members of the Country Mayors Association so he can take their concerns and suggestions to the panel.
"I sat down with our local doctors here a fortnight ago, just to get their perspective on how they would solve some of the issues. A lot of what they said revolves around finance and making sure medicare payments are up where they need to be, and providing accommodation in some of the more remote areas," he said.
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