We need to make allied health accessible for all Australians, writes Weh Yeoh.

Weh Yeoh

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of community-wide collaboration to ensure no one gets left behind during difficult times.

Particularly for those in the aged care system, the negative impacts of understaffing were exacerbated, leading to some catastrophic and unacceptable outcomes.

The allied health industry recently celebrated Allied Health Professionals Day around the theme ‘stronger together’ but the reality is there is still more work to be done before we can claim to be supporting our communities equally and collaboratively.

Improving communities’ quality of life requires adequate government funding.

Our allied health professionals play an integral role in improving quality of life, which the pandemic has reminded us is priceless.

The recent federal budget again overlooked the value and impact that allied health professionals have on communities.

Yet, the recent federal budget again overlooked the value and impact that allied health professionals have on communities.

Most of the health funding is still highly medical focused, and while funding in these areas is important and necessary, the allied health sector, which hires at least a quarter of all health care professionals, needs appropriate funding alongside its medical counterparts to be as effective as possible in the field.

Particularly in regional Australia, allied health professionals are few and far between, leaving communities like people in aged care and people with disabilities waiting up to 18 months for basic services such as speech and occupational therapy.

With a more industry-wide approach to supporting the industry in these regions, government funding could be used to fill the skills gaps in rural communities, upskill professionals locally so there is less reliance on fly-in-fly-out professionals, and ensure no one is forced into going without allied health services because of lack of local talent.

Collaboration key to equal access

Allied health professionals, government agencies, and health care leaders need to recognise the importance of cross-industry collaboration to ensure every Australian has fair and equal access to allied health services and the best quality of life possible.

Funding alone will not be enough, particularly for regional Australians, if the systems and approaches aren’t adjusted with the patients’ needs front of mind.

The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), for example, has had billions of dollars of funding over the years, and a further $3.9 billion committed in the recent federal budget. But there has been a significant underspend on the scheme, partly due to participants only spending between 60-70 per cent of their allocated support. A major contributing factor is the lack of providers, particularly in rural communities, highlighting the importance of the industry and government to re-assess the current systems in place to ensure that those in need are empowered to benefit from the initiatives and programs being funded.

Resistance to change

Another key reason for the lack of effectiveness of the current health care system is the industry’s resistance to change. There has historically been a preference for face to face service provision, despite the long wait times, high costs of paying for allied health professionals to travel interstate, and distances to travel to and from a clinic for those in regional Australia. While there is merit to in-person health services, if someone has to wait over a year to receive face to face therapy – what’s the point?

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the opportunities telehealth can present to cut wait times and deliver services in the conveniences of people’s own homes. But it cannot simply be a matter of combining a traditional service with a video conferencing tool – using the latest research, allied health professionals have an opportunity to re-invent how their services are delivered online, taking a holistic approach to the patient’s unique needs and environments.

Moving forward, while progress is being made in adopting new and innovative ways of delivering health care online, there is much to be done to ensure our aged care sector, rural communities, and families waiting on allied health services are properly serviced and supported. I hope to see the NDIS, government more broadly, and those within the sector collaborate to deliver allied health services in a way which is inclusive and accessible for all Australians.

Weh Yeoh is a trained physiotherapist who established speech therapy as a profession in Cambodia. He is CEO of  online allied health services provider Umbo, which delivers allied health services in rural and remote Australia.

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