High rates of drug and alcohol abuse in rural areas: Report

Matt Woodley

15/03/2019 2:04:57 PM

Australians in rural and remote areas are more likely to access drug treatments, despite often having to travel more than an hour to receive them.

Man on rural property
More than one quarter of the treatment episodes in rural areas involved people travelling at least an hour. (Image: David Mariuz)

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) report, around one in every 153 people sought treatment in rural and remote areas in 2016–17, compared with about one in 171 in major cities.
More than one quarter of the treatment episodes in rural areas involved people travelling at least one hour for treatment, opposed to approximately 10% of patients in major cities.
‘Drug and alcohol issues are a real problem in rural and remote areas with fewer specialist services,’ Dr Hester Wilson, Chair of the RACGP Addiction Medicine Specific Interests network, told newsGP.
‘This is an issue for GPs who face a burden with this work and who quite often don’t have the support they need.’
The report, which drew figures from the 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS), also showed residents in rural and remote areas were ‘significantly more likely’ to drink alcohol daily, and drink to a level that put them at long-term risk of harm.
In particular, 26–36% of people aged 14 and over living in remote and very remote areas of Western Australia and the Northern Territory (excluding the regions surrounding Darwin and Alice Springs) drank alcohol at levels that exceeded the lifetime risk guidelines.
Additionally, 22–36% of people aged 14 and over living in the Northern Territory outside of the areas surrounding Darwin and Alice Springs had consumed an illicit drug in the 12 months leading up to the survey.
Other remote and very remote areas in South Australia and Queensland did not have data available.
GPs are often the first and only healthcare contact for people struggling with addiction in rural areas. Wagga Wagga GP Dr Mary Ross previously told newsGP it is not uncommon to hear that health services in rural and remote are underequipped for the treatment needs of their populations.
‘That’s a problem in country areas: people may want to address their drug and alcohol problem, but either the service is not available or it’s too difficult to travel to that place. It means relocating to another town,’ Dr Ross said.
‘So often the GP is the last man standing, so to speak, and is the one available in small communities.’
The latest report also presents ‘burden of disease’ analysis, which measures the combined impact of dying prematurely, as well as the impact of living with disease, to quantify the impact of drug and alcohol use.
‘The report is an important resource to inform policies and programs to reduce the harms that may result from the use of alcohol and other drugs,’ AIHW spokesperson Moira Hewitt said.
‘For people in remote and very remote areas, the burden of disease due to alcohol use was 2.1 and 2.7 times higher, respectively, than for those in major cities in 2011.’
Other key findings from the report:

  • The rate of drug-induced deaths in 2017 was slightly higher in major cities, compared with rural and remote areas (7.4 deaths per 100,000 people, and 7.2 per 100,000)
  • Over the past decade, the rate of drug-induced deaths has increased at a faster rate in rural and remote areas, which are up 41% since 2008, compared to 16% in major cities over the same period
  • Agencies in rural and remote areas had a higher rate of clients who sought treatment compared with agencies in major cities (652 clients per 100,000 population, and 586 clients per 100,000). This figure increased to 1294 per 100,000 in remote and very remote areas
  • People in major cities were significantly more likely than those in rural and remote areas to have recently used ecstasy (2.5% compared with 1.5%) and cocaine (3.2% compared with 1.1%)

drug and alcohol treatment rural health substance abuse

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