30 June 2020

Alcoa-backed Deakin Centre fighting COVID-19 in rural hospitals


Deakin University’s Centre for Rural Emergency Medicine (CREM) has helped guide the creation and implementation of fit-for-purpose COVID-19 guidelines for emergency facilities across rural Australia.

CREM Director  Clinical Associate Professor Tim Baker and Michael Donaghue
CREM Director, Clinical Associate Professor Tim Baker and former Alcoa Medical Director Dr Michael Donoghue.

CREM – a partnership with Victorian Government, South West Healthcare, Portland District Health and Alcoa of Australia – has been working since 2009 on ensuring the best possible solutions and outcomes for rural emergency services and patients.

Researchers from CREM have contributed to the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine COVID-19 Toolkit, coming up with a toolkit of practical advice and safety solutions that meet the needs and demands of small rural hospitals, as opposed to large city-based emergency departments.

The new toolkit explains how the principles used to counter COVID-19 in large emergency departments can be adapted and turned into practical advice for facilities in rural and regional towns. It contains examples from across Australia, many created by rural emergency physicians funded by the Commonwealth Government’s Emergency Education and Training fund, on how this can be done.

CREM Director, Clinical Associate Professor Tim Baker, said COVID-19 was, and continued to be, a real challenge for regional and rural communities just as much as in major metropolitan areas.

“In Australia, where we may have avoided an unmanageable peak of COVID-19 cases so far, local outbreaks are still possible. There has already been an outbreak in rural Tasmania, which serves as an important reminder that regional areas are not immune to this pandemic,” Dr Baker said.

“The possibility of one case at a regional location becoming a COVID-19 cluster is just as real as in a city, so there must be plans set in place to ensure rural emergency departments aren’t overwhelmed.

“Despite less patients in total and very few rural COVID-19 patients, every patient with a cough, fever or shortness of breath must be treated as a possible COVID-19 patient.

“This means that extra personal protective equipment and procedures are required, and also a plan for how work can be spread among rural emergency facilities, should an outbreak occur.

“We also know that rural patients don't like to be a burden to their local hospital unless they think they’re very unwell. Because of this, we’re worried that many rural patients may have missed treatment for heart attacks and other serious conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Staff from the Centre have spent the past months participating in government committees and advocating for an equitable share of pandemic resources between rural and urban areas. CREM has also won a research grant from the Western Alliance to look at how small rural emergency departments have been affected by COVID-19, in conjunction with Deakin Rural Health.

“With 10 years of experience in rural emergency care, our centre has been well placed to help rural hospitals through the COVID-19 pandemic. Because the world is now so closely connected, we are unlikely to have to wait so long before the next pandemic – and what we learn about COVID-19 will help keep rural communities safe in the future,” Dr Baker said.