The University of New England hosted the biggest political event on its annual calendar this week when Shadow Minister for Health MP Chris Bowen presented the 36th Earle Page Political Lecture to a room filled to the capacity allowed under COVID-19 restrictions.
The UNE Alumnus' presentation 'Stronger on the other side: a healthier society after COVID' was also viewed by an online audience and he participated in a Q&A session with them via Zoom after his address.
While the Earle Page Political Lecture has been live-streamed in previous years, this was the first occasion it had been conducted via an interactive Zoom webinar event.
When asked by an inhouse audience member during the Q&A session which national policy elements introduced to cope with the impact of COVID-19 should stay, Mr Bowen cited two: telehealth and the increased Newstart allowance.
"Really COVID has accelerated the inevitable transition towards telehealth by about five years," Mr Bowen said.
"I think in five years time Medicare would have recognised telehealth.
"At the moment it is temporary and runs out in March, but I don't foresee that is sustainable as Australians are used to engaging in telehealth.
"It is not everything, and we still need physical consultation, but it does provide so much flexibility in diagnosis and treatment, and I think that it is here to stay."
His assertion comes following reports earlier this week that a woman bled to death in the emergency department of a regional hospital that had replaced face-to-face doctors with videolink consultations outside business hours.
When the Express caught up with Mr Bowen after the lecture he said telehealth can't be a replacement to physical consultation, but he wasn't willing to be drawn on the specific election policies of his party.
"It's got to be a complement to in-person health, it can't be a replacement - it's a very important complement which adds value - but if it's seen as giving a 'get out of jail free' card for the workforce needed to achieve a stronger rural and regional health sector then it's a backward step, not a forward step.
"It's got to be an addition, it's got to be a complement, it's got to be an embroidery, but not a replacement of in-person healthcare services."
Mr Bowen also said the lack of doctors in regional areas was something his party's policies would address.
"It's a big concern of ours," he said.
"I don't doubt the Government is bonafide in wanting to fix it - but I query the levers they are using to fix it - and I believe some of them are counterproductive.
"I've got some different levers in mind, and it is a very important part of my policy thinking, but I'm not going to announce that now."
Mr Bowen said that the inequity in life expectancy between cities and regions was one of the biggest and most important health challenges we face.
"Life expectancy, the years in someone's life, decreases as remoteness increases," he said.
"This is more than just a number.
"It is a number that results from wildly different experiences of health, wellbeing and access to services between the country and the city.
"We have the ability to prevent a great proportion of chronic disease, which contributes to 90 percent of deaths, and is particularly prevalent in rural Australia.
"Social determinants like income, education and employment opportunities look different in the regions- and this directly impacts on health and wellbeing.
"If we want to seriously address life expectancy and other health gaps between the regions and our cities, we need to look at hospitals and GP's yes - but we also need to look at the causes of ill health in the first place, to ensure that Australians born outside of the cities don't get their lives cut short because of their postcode."
Read the full transcript of Mr Bowen's Earle Page Politics Lecture here