Limited Access to Paediatric Care: A Glimpse into a Growing Crisis

Jacqueline Emery, CEO of Royal Far West speaks about the challenges of heightened child complexity amidst a state-wide shortage of paediatric appointments.

In many rural areas across Australia, families are grappling with a distressing challenge: a scarcity of paediatric appointments. As an organisation dedicated to providing comprehensive care for children and families, Royal Far West (RFW) has uncovered a critical issue that demands our attention.

Recent confirmations from paediatricians in areas like Wagga Wagga, Dubbo, Orange, Tamworth, and Bega paint a worrying picture. Their appointment books are either closed to children in need of developmental support, or these young patients are being asked to wait for significant amounts of time -sometimes years- before receiving essential care. Hospitals have also shared disheartening statistics regarding the waiting times for paediatric outpatient clinics, especially for non-urgent developmental appointments:

  • Dubbo: Not accepting any behavioural referrals
  • Bega: Approx. 18 months waiting time
  • Tamworth: Up to 3 years waiting time
  • Orange: Up to 2.5 years waiting time (with over 700 on the waitlist)
  • Wagga Wagga: Only accepting children with a certain health care card

This situation has forced outpatient clinics to make the difficult decision of prioritising critical medical appointments, leaving children with behavioural concerns in a state of limbo.

Complexity Amidst Shortage

The situation becomes even more dire when considering the increased complexity of children’s needs, compounded by the statewide shortage of paediatric appointments. RFW has been operating a Paediatric Development Program (PDP) for country children and their families who lack access to specialist services. Supporting over 400 children annually, this program has been partially funded by NSW Health for many years.

However, the demand for ongoing RFW specialist paediatric and psychiatric care has surged dramatically over recent years. This has been aggravated by the unfortunate reality of many paediatricians closing their books or maintaining extensive waitlists in rural NSW. As the need for care continues to mount, RFW faces a challenging task in meeting these increasing demands.

Redefining “Most at Need”

One prevailing misconception needs to be addressed head-on: the belief that children with behavioural challenges are not among the “most at need.” RFW has observed a contrary reality, as more children and their families are seeking services from various parts of NSW, particularly for follow-up and ongoing treatments. Over recent years, clinicians have witnessed a striking rise in the complexity of child cases, a trend exacerbated by a widening rural workforce shortage. These challenges are emerging at an even younger age, underscoring the urgency of comprehensive and timely care.

Seeking Solutions in the Face of Funding Shortages

To tackle these pressing issues, RFW has reached out to NSW Health, requesting temporary funding to address the growing complexity demand. The proposal aims to employ additional paediatric, psychiatry, and resources to provide much-needed support. Despite the evident need for such funding, success has been elusive, posing a challenge to RFW’s efforts to meet the increasing demand for their services.

It is important that we do not ignore the increasing need for services in country areas of NSW, due to lack of workforce or other issues. The Auditor General report into Regional, Rural and Remote Education tabled in Parliament recently (today 10 Aug)  shows the ongoing divide in education and wellbeing outcomes for country kids. It recommends funding programs to address these existing inequities. Your postcode should not determine education and health outcomes for children. Country kids deserve better and should not be disadvantaged because of where they live.

Spotlight on Narromine: Telecare for Kids Impact

As part of their ongoing commitment to addressing these challenges, RFW organised a visit to Narromine Public School, accompanied by Fiona Nash, the Regional Education Commissioner. This visit seeks to highlight the significant impact of RFW’s Telecare program for kids. The longstanding partnership between RFW and Narromine Public School has yielded exceptional results:

  • 80% of children have met or exceeded their treatment goals.
  • A positive influence on attendance and classroom engagement.
  • Notable enhancements in student behaviourwellbeing, and social skill development.
  • Increased parental engagement and skill-building.
  • Professional development opportunities for school staff.

With the conclusion of this visit, it’s clear that the partnership between RFW and Narromine Public School has become a program that works by delivering improved educational outcomes for kids. Through the sharing of stories, heightened awareness, and strong advocacy for accessible and timely care, we can make strides towards a future where the needs of every child are met, irrespective of their geographical location or the complexity of their concerns. It is what every child deserves.

Support rural and regional children’s health here

Listen to the interview

Jacqueline Emery, CEO of Royal Far West, shares crucial insights on the pressing issue of the shortage of paediatric appointments in a compelling interview on ABC Radio RN Breakfast.