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Experts say considerable improvement is needed to increase access to mental health services and address health inequities for vulnerable children including those from low income families and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

In the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) report, launched today, experts from Murdoch Children's Research Institute have reflected on the progress made in access to quality health care over the past 25 years. The Report, curated by UNICEF Australia, brings together experts from more than 100 organisations advocating for the rights of Australia’s children to ensure pressing issues remain squarely on the agenda of the Australian government this election year.

According to MCRI Professor Sharon Goldfeld, disadvantage is a persistent factor preventing many Australian children from accessing quality primary health care services. The report also addresses widening gaps in the health of vulnerable communities, which is causing Australia to lag behind other developed nations.

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“Australia tends to rank in the middle of high income countries when it comes to the health of its children, leaving ample room for improvement,” says Professor Goldfeld, who penned the report’s Access to Quality Health Care chapter with Professor Harriet Hiscock.

“National data suggest that most Australian children enjoy good physical health, but there are unacceptable pockets of inequity.

“Families of low socio-economic status, from minority ethnicity and those in rural regions have more difficulty accessing primary, specialist and allied health services; they are often deterred or hindered by long wait times, costs, lack of awareness and language barriers.

“We need to tackle these issues now in order to optimise health and wellbeing for future generations, which is beneficial to all Australians,” said Professor Goldfeld.

Ongoing issues and concerns outlined in the report include:

  • Over the past two decades, children have made up an ever-smaller proportion of primary care visits and there has been an overall decrease in longer GP consultations for children. This has occurred despite a 12 per cent increase in the population of children in Australia during the same period, suggesting that many children are instead attending emergency departments, placing unsustainable demand on public hospitals.
  • Outpatient clinic waiting times for relatively straightforward conditions, such as constipation, simple allergy and behavioral problems, range from three to 18 months.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in remote Northern Territory communities have some of the highest rates of contact with clinicians of any child in Australia yet continue to have poorer health. There must be a focus on preventative action to stop children developing chronic health issues in the first place.

Professor Hiscock said the CRC report serves as a timely reminder that childhood is the pivotal time to intervene to build a healthier Australia, and that no child should be left behind because of family circumstances or hardship.

“We recommend investing in programs that ‘find’ disadvantaged children and their families who may be ‘hidden’ from the current system,” said Professor Hiscock. “This means we need to shift our thinking from the presumption that it is the family’s responsibility to present to services and negotiate our system.”

In the report, Professors Goldfeld and Hiscock recommend State, Territory and Commonwealth Governments provide resources to a range of interventions including:

  • Introduction of early intervention programs such as in-home nurse visits and quality early childhood education and care.
  • Better use existing data to monitor quality, impact and access. Previous improvements in this area through the development of the Australian Childhood Immunisation Register have been relatively successful in monitoring vaccination and targeting unimmunised children.
  • An integrated approach to planning for health and education services. It makes no sense to develop these services streams as separate policy agendas.

Victoria's Commissioner for Children, Liana Buchanan added:

"There's no question we need both investment and service reform to make sure all children - especially vulnerable children and those in communities experiencing disadvantage - have better access to health care. This is simply key to better outcomes for Australia's children."

Learn more about UNICEF's work here.