21 Oct 2014

Lack of data hampers health alliance

4:05 pm on 21 October 2014

The Rural Health Alliance says a lack of data is hampering its efforts to push for improved health services in rural communities and tackle high suicide and depression rates.

The alliance is made up of 22 health related and rural interest organisations.

farmer drought

Farmers are amongst the highest risk occupation group for suicide, the Rural Health Alliance says. Photo: PHOTO NZ

Chief executive Michelle Thompson told the Future Farms conference in Wellington this morning it has become apparent in the past few months that it can't get the good quality data it needs to build a case to take to the Government.

"If we can't measure something then we can't change it. Across Government there's no consistency. They're all operating on different data sets, different data systems and they don't talk to each other. And it seems crazy that we actually have a rural-urban classification endorsed by New Zealand Stats, yet none of our government departments, especially the Ministry of Health, can report in that way.

"At the moment, there is no meaningful way we can analyse what's happening with rural health status compared to urban, so we've got to get onto that straight away."

The Rural Health Alliance's chair, Jo Scott-Jones, said the way health services are funded on a per captia basis is also a challenge, especially in provincial and rural areas where the population may be falling and getting older, which means less funding for a population that needs more health care.

"It'll come as no surprise, given the problems of access to care, that people living in rural communities are less likely to have seen a GP in the last 12 months and also less likely to have had a prescription.

"And it may be counter-intuitive, but they are more likely to have had a CAT scan and to have used a hospital, perhaps because they're not getting access to the preventative health care that they really need, Dr Scott-Jones said.

"That is further evidenced in cancer outcomes. Cancer statistics such as new registrations, most common types of cancer and death rates, are not routinely reported by urban-rural breakdown. (But) research conducted in 2010 showed that people living rurally have poorer survival rates for cancer than urban residents. And as is very common across health statistics, the differences are greater between Maori and non-Maori."

Dr Scott-Jones also raised the issue of high accident and suicide rates in rural areas and said recently obtained figures from police have added to the picture.

"The number of 111 cases coming in to police by people threatening or attempting suicide has increased eight-and-a-half fold since 1995, when these reports began. Police have been able to tell us that in the last 12 months, 56 percent of calls for threatened or attempted suicide were for rural areas. We need to know why rural people especially are choosing to ring the police, rather than mental health services, when they're in this state.

"We do know that farmers are amongst the highest risk occupation group for suicide, and trend data obtained from the coroner's office by Federated Farmers shows that since 2007, an average of 24 farmers take their own lives each year."

Federated Farmers' health and safety spokesperson Katie Milne said the figures show that higher suicide rates occur during times of great stress on the farm, and farmers can help themselves by having a plan for dealing with adverse weather and other events.

"If it's going to be a drought, have a think about it before the event. Every year it happens somewhere. Have some plans around what you will do for those things you can't control, which is the weather. Know where you can get extra feed, know where your cut-offs are, to start destocking etcetera, and try to put everything in your favour that you can," she said.

"Have a good relationship with your banker, so that if things do go pear shaped, you can get the financial support you need to see you through, because you will get through."

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