The head of the national rural health group has made a plea for the government to consider much-needed rural research.
Michelle Thompson, chief executive of the Rural Health Alliance Aotearoa New Zealand (RHAANZ) says there is a strong feeling that rural health outcomes are poorer than urban health outcomes but until they have the hard data they can’t be sure whether there is a difference or understand the scale of the difference.
Earlier this year the RHAANZ presented its five most urgent priorities to government, one of which included comprehensive rural health research support.
Ms Thompson said it was a relief to see the government recently provide a further half million dollars for rural mental health initiatives.
“This is a good sign to us they agree, in the absence of hard data — this is an area of concern.
“We know very little about the people who live and work in rural New Zealand from a health perspective.
“To do this we first need a nationally agreed definition on rurality as it pertains to health in New Zealand.
“Then we need to ensure that the Ministry of Health, the district health boards and primary health organisations use this definition to routinely report health statistics using a rural to urban comparison.“
Ms Thompson said they believe the lack of a fit-for-purpose definition of rural is a major stumbling block to progress on rural mental health issues.
“Until we have such a definition that is routinely used across Government neither we, nor the government, can write informed health policy. Neither can we be sure that our precious resources are being targeted to where they are most needed.
“It is not okay that we don’t know whether our children are disadvantaged because they have poorer access to maternity and youth health services than urban children, for example.
“We just don’t know whether our outcomes for cancer are poorer because of the extra difficulties getting to chemotherapy or radiotherapy services. Logic would tell us that having to travel long distances to services would make a difference but we can’t be sure about this without a firm evidence base.”
She said as well as a new definition of rural they want to see a rural proofing tool reinstated across policy development in New Zealand.
“We used to have this 10 years ago but it appears to have dropped off the scene,” Ms Thompson said.
“Rural proofing requires our policymakers to take into account the circumstances and needs of rural communities and rural business when developing and implementing policy before the policy is introduced.
“This is to enable any unintended consequences to be addressed before the policy is rolled out.
Consideration of low population density and isolation are critical to rural proofing.
“While rural definitions and rural proofing may sound dry and boring, they are seen as absolutely essential to get right.
“Words talk but numbers shout. Without hard evidence, it’s pretty much impossible to make a case to government for additional support and resourcing for rural communities.”