A MAJOR initiative to close the health gap between urban and rural Australia was launched today in Canberra.
A free-to-air health channel, launched by three federal Ministers - Tanya Plibersek, Stephen Conroy and Warren Snowdon - provides regular and reliable health education and information to areas sorely lacking in medical facilities.
The overall mortality rate is 12% higher in country towns and surrounding areas than in the metropolitan areas, and one-fifth of GPs cater to one third of the Australian population, including almost two thirds of Indigenous people.
Health Minister Ms Plibersek said improving health care services for rural, regional and remote Australia was an important priority for the Gillard Government.
"Improving access to information on healthy lifestyles and reducing risks factors will make a significant difference in local communities. The Rural Health Education Foundation is making a real contribution to closing the gap between rural and urban Australia," she said.
The channel has been set up by the Rural Health Education Foundation, an independent, non-profit organisation that over the last 20 years has provided free distance learning education programs to more than 50,000 health professionals.
Until now, this service was only available to health professionals in their clinics or workplaces, and only for two hours per fortnight, and the Foundation had no way to reach members of the wider community.
The Rural Health Channel is being broadcast via satellite on the new Viewer Access Satellite Television (VAST) platform. VAST services provide digital TV to people who cannot receive terrestrial digital television and currently reach 75,000 households. Government estimates expect this number to grow to 250,000 by the end of next year.
The Rural Health Channel is the first narrowcaster (specialised non-commercial channel) to use VAST. It is broadcasting from 1.30 to 3.30pm and 7.30 to 9.30pm on weekdays, and 4.30 to 6pm on Sundays.
"VAST is evidence of the Government's commitment to address the inferior television services regional and remote Australian audiences have had to put up with for far too long. I commend the Rural Health Channel for harnessing this new platform so effectively," Senator Conroy said.
The channel, which began broadcasting on May 21, is serving as a conduit for government and not-for-profit health initiatives. Already Palliative Care Australia, Lifeline and the Heart Foundation are among the organisations that have used the channel to spread their health messages.