The great mystery of medical travel

ALMOST 8000 Border people travelled for medical appointments or treatment last year — but that’s only half the story.

The real figure is much higher, but it doesn’t exist in any government records.

The number travelling to capital cities for help — from major surgery to a 10-minute appointment — is unknown.

Victorian Health Department data shows 3738 Hume region patients last year made travel claims, under a little-known Victorian assistance scheme. In NSW, there were 4076 claims in the Murrumbidgee district.

Travellers Aid Australia chief Jodie Willmer said many more travellers would not have claimed costs.

“There needs to be a lot more analysis of why people travel and services they need,” she said.

“People often make a trip for a very short appointment,” Ms Willmer said. “If the facilities were here, the commute would be less and so would the costs.”

The most recent study The Border Mail found — by the Health Issues Centre in 2008 — showed Hume patients travelled to Melbourne for heart and cancer treatment, digestive disorders, musculo-skeletal issues, and kidney and urinary tract concerns.

Albury Wodonga Health chief Stuart Spring said he had never seen an exact figure, with data usually based on speciality areas.

“We know more than 1000 people go for cardiac investigations and treatment,” he said.

“It’s generally things unavailable locally.”

Travellers Aid, a Victorian Government-funded project that matches travellers with a Melbourne companion, has branches in Wodonga and Wangaratta.

Ms Willmer said bigger regional centres had more services, but those requiring public transport still often travelled to Melbourne.

She said many clients were older — 50 to 80 — with disabilities or mobility issues. Stress on such clients could have serious consequences.

“Some people don’t make follow-up appointments or they delay treatment,” she said.

“Some have said that without our service, they would have radical surgery to avoid travel.”

Ms Willmer said with the subsidy often well below the costs, it was being reviewed and there was a push to lift subsidies from 17 cents/km for fuel to 30 and accommodation assistance from $35 a night to $75.

Dr Spring said while the Border would get advanced cancer care and a cardiac catheter centre, gaps remained in neurosurgery and vascular surgery.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever see neurosurgery, but I do hope we get better vascular surgery services,” he said.