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Peers scrutinise rural healthcare

On Thursday 23 February the House of Lords debated the Government's plans for healthcare delivery in rural areas. A response to a question for short debate, the discussion was scheduled relatively late and assigned only an hour, but the peers who spoke offered good insight into the challenges of healthcare delivery in the countryside, of which Countryside Alliance supporters will be only too well aware.

Introducing the debate, Baroness McIntosh of Pickering noted that she came from a family of dispensing doctors and sits on the Rural Affairs Group of the Church of England General Synod. She pointed out that the UK population living in remote, rural and coastal communities amounts, at over 9 million people, to more than the population of Greater London yet faces wildly unequal access to local healthcare. She questioned the extent to which healthcare services have really been rural-proofed and warned that rurality and sparsity of population are no longer reflected in funding allocations. She also highlighted the issue of poor internet connectivity which means, among many other impacts, that rural dispensing doctors are unable to deliver electronic prescriptions.

As the discussion developed several peers shared their experiences of living in rural areas and the difficulties they had faced in accessing healthcare services. They highlighted as some of the key challenges shortages of doctors and nurses in rural areas, long travel times to reach hospitals and the limited availability of public transportation. The Bishop of St Albans talked about how isolation and loneliness can exacerbate mental ill-health, a subject that the Countryside Alliance has campaigned on extensively.

Another factor peers emphasised was the importance of technology in providing healthcare services to rural areas. They suggested that telemedicine and virtual consultations could help bridge the gap in healthcare provision and ensure that patients in remote areas receive the care they need. Lord Mann cited the example of Iceland, which has the best outcomes for stroke care despite it being virtually impossible for its outlying population to reach the main hospital in Reykjavik within an hour. Instead, a home-based specialist consults online with skilled local nurses who are trained to act on instruction. Such solutions are, of course, predicated on a reasonably fast and reliable internet connection.

The debate also focused on the need to train and retain healthcare professionals in rural areas. Members called for increased incentives for doctors and nurses to work in rural areas and for the government to invest in training programs that focus on rural healthcare.

Lord Evans of Rainow, responding on behalf of the Government, acknowledged the challenges faced by rural communities in accessing healthcare services and affirmed a commitment to addressing them. He highlighted plans to invest in digital healthcare technology and telemedicine to improve access, also mentioning ongoing efforts to expand the workforce of doctors and nurses and provide training programs that focus on rural healthcare.

He also emphasised the importance of collaboration between the government, healthcare providers and local communities to identify and address specific healthcare needs. He stated that the government is working closely with these groups to develop effective solutions to improve access to healthcare services in rural areas.

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