Improving NDIS support in rural, remote Australia
NDIS participants living in rural and remote Australia are facing significant issues accessing support to achieve their goals. This is resulting in a mammoth amount of unused funds and many left needing help.
In fact, the latest research has shown that 27% of NDIS funding goes unused for those on their fifth plan, equating to $30,252 per participant. The enormous loss of unused funding was reflected in the final budget figures for 2018/19, in which the NDIS was underspent by about $4.6 billion.
With this in mind, how can we combat this challenge and work to ensure NDIS participants in rural and remote Australia are getting the support they’re recommended and need? Some simple solutions lay in increasing access to NDIS providers and reducing the funding that is used for travel. Here, I suggest some issues to be explored.
Increasing rural and remote access to NDIS providers
There’s a multitude of reasons why participant funding often remains unused. One key reason is that there’s a lack of relevant allied health professionals in rural and remote areas who are necessary to support participants in achieving their goals — from building skills and independence, to preparing to work or study in the future.
When looking at rural and remote Australia, there are insufficient allied health providers. Remote areas have less than half the number of psychologists (65% less), 50% fewer physiotherapists and 65% fewer occupational therapists for comparable population sizes. This disparity means participants have a lack of access, which can hinder their ability to achieve their goals, making the NDIS program less effective for them.
By tapping into technology tools, and specifically video telehealth services, NDIS participants in rural and remote areas can have ongoing and more frequent support from providers to help them set and achieve their goals. It also provides access to a broader pool of allied health professionals with specific expertise, making the NDIS program and support more effective.
Already rural and remote Australians have expressed interest in the increased telehealth offerings in line with the COVID-19 lockdowns. The 70% increase in access to telehealth amid lockdowns was described as a lifeline to rural and remote participants. This positive response to telehealth shows the appetite that patients have for this technology and, ultimately, identifies telehealth as part of a solution to overcoming the lack of access.
Reducing funding being used for travel
Another key challenge is the use of funding to cover the travel costs of health practitioners and non-clinical staff such as support coordinators. In metropolitan areas, a provider may travel over 30 to 40 minutes each way to visit a participant. However, the travel time is a cost incurred by the NDIS participant and deducted from their budget. In a rural area, travel times increase significantly, incurring considerable cost for the participant. This money would be better spent on services that directly benefit the individual in helping them achieve their goals.
The issue with the cost of travel is the inequality of fund use between rural, remote and metropolitan participants. Increased access through telehealth, for appropriate appointments, can play a key role in overcoming this problem. Connecting participants and allied health professionals digitally means less of the funding will be allocated to covering travel costs and, instead, more time on actual support or therapy — whether that’s with a physiotherapist, speech pathologist or other provider.
There’s a lack of health services available to rural and remote Australians, which places a burden on rural and remote NDIS participants, resulting in reduced support and misused or wasted resources. For suitable consultations, telehealth increases accessibility to a wider range of NDIS providers, allowing rural and remote Australians to receive regular and ongoing support from health professionals. It also removes the costly necessity of funding being spent and, ultimately, wasted on travel. In order to better support the NDIS community, we must adopt solutions to accessibility restraints to maximise the benefit participants can achieve.
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