Australians have always been challenged by distance and transportation needs. In a country with five major deserts where 80% of the population lives on the eastern seaboard, many Australians live in towns and villages that are virtually cut off from the rest of the country by ground transport. How does health care work in these isolated communities? How do people with cancer access good information and care?

The challenges are numerous, said nurse Maggie Stowers, a cancer co-ordination manager for the Barwon South Western Regional Integrated Cancer Service. Stowers answered these questions in her poster session at the 16th International Conference on Cancer Nursing in Atlanta, painting a vivid portrait of the insufficiencies in the current national network of care for cancer patients in rural Australia. “There are gaps in treatment,” she observed. “And we’ve recorded gaps in patient referral. The biggest gap is in access to specialist cancer nurses.”

According to Stowers, a government-supported Cancer Coordination (CC) project recently studied these gaps over a 20-month period, examining the care received by 215 patients living in rural areas. The study showed a severe gap in access to specialist cancer nurses. The study also demonstrated that cancer patients living in rural areas sought out psychological and emotional support, and general and clinical information about cancer, more than other services.

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The CC project hopes to address some of these gaps in care, said Stowers, by enhancing the continuity of care received by patients in rural areas, increasing the availability of cancer nurses, and improving communication between clinicians. The CC is planning to use video conferencing and educational forums to overcome some of the problems associated with cancer care in the sparsely populated center, Western, and Northern regions of the country. Cancer Link Nurses, an online database and communication center, allows nurses to communicate and share information across the country.