Research in five rural towns about the factors that influence a decision to visit a doctor for non-urgent care could have major implications for planning primary health care services.
Lead researcher, Dr Bernadette Ward of the School of Rural Health at Monash University, said that, when planning health services, planners and policy makers generally assume that distance to a clinic is the main or only factor in rural people’s decision to see a doctor.
“This study shows that is not the case,” said Dr Ward.
“Data provided by the residents of Stanhope, Birchip and Heyfield in Victoria, and Grenfell and Jerilderie in New South Wales quite clearly demonstrate that people will travel relatively long distances to see a doctor they prefer.
“The distance they have to travel to see a doctor ranks only third in importance – a long way behind preference for a doctor and availability of a doctor.”
Although many published studies highlight the importance of doctor-patient relationships in use of doctors’ services, this is the first empirical study to show how people trade off the different factors that influence their decision to visit a GP.
The results varied slightly between relatively closely settled rural areas and more sparsely settled areas.
In sparsely settled areas, the availability of a GP is ranked slightly above preference for a GP, and well above distance to the service and cost.
“The fact that distance is consistently ranked as less important than availability of, or preference for, a GP suggests that most rural residents accept the need to travel some ‘reasonable’ distance in order to access health care,” said Dr Ward.
What constitutes a ‘reasonable distance’ varied with geographic location: the more sparsely populated the region, the further residents were prepared to travel.
“What it the study does demonstrate that planners need to incorporate other dimensions of access to services besides their availability,” said Dr Ward.
“Optimum use of doctors and other primary health care services relies on providing appropriate care in line with the needs and preferences of individual communities."
The paper – ‘Which dimensions of access are most important when rural residents decide to visit a general practitioner for non-emergency care’ – was published in Australian Health Review. For more information contact Dr Bernadette Ward: firstname.lastname@example.org or 0427 059 205.