Health and access issues among Australian adolescents: a rural-urban comparison

Rural Remote Health. Oct-Dec 2003;3(3):245. Epub 2003 Nov 25.


Introduction: Previous research has reported rural-urban differences in health concerns and access issues. However, very little of this has concerned young people, and what has been published has been mainly from countries other than Australia and may not generalise to Australian youth. The study described in this paper is a subset of a larger study on health concerns and access to healthcare for younger people (12-17 years) living in New South Wales (NSW), Australia. This paper reports findings on rural-urban similarities and differences. The specific study objective was to identify and describe rural-urban differences, especially those associated with structural disadvantage.

Method: The reported findings form part of a larger state-wide cross-sectional study of access to healthcare among NSW adolescents. Adolescents were drawn from high schools in ten of the 17 Area Health Services in NSW. These Area Health Services were selected because they represent most aspects of rural-urban NSW with respect to population characteristics and health services. Eighty-one focus groups were conducted with adolescents (35 with boys and 46 with girls), of which 56 were conducted in urban, 22 in rural and 3 in regional areas. The focus groups were tape-recorded, transcribed and analysed using the computer software package NUD*IST 4.

Results: The analysis revealed certain health concerns that were common to both rural and urban adolescents: use of alcohol and illicit drugs, bullying, street safety, diet and body image, sexual health, stress and depression. However, certain concerns were mentioned more frequently in rural areas (eg depression), and two concerns were raised almost exclusively by rural youth (youth suicide and teenage pregnancy). There were also structural differences in service provision: adolescents in rural areas reported disadvantage in obtaining access to healthcare (limited number of providers and lengthy waiting times); having only a limited choice of providers (eg only one female doctor available), and cost (virtually no bulk billing--ie direct charge to Medicare with no patient co-payment). A lack of confidentiality as a barrier to seeking service access was raised by both rural and urban youth, but was a major concern in rural areas. No issues specific to urban areas were raised by urban youth. Male and female rural adolescents were more likely than urban adolescents to express concerns over limited educational, employment and recreational opportunities, which they believed contributed to their risk-taking behaviour. Gender differences were evident for mental health issues, with boys less able to talk with their peers or service providers about stress and depression than girls. These gender differences were evident among adolescents in both rural and urban areas, but the ethos of a self-reliant male who does not ask for help was more evident among rural boys.

Conclusions: While Australian rural and urban youth shared many health concerns, rural-urban differences were striking in the almost exclusive reporting of youth suicide and teenage pregnancy by rural adolescents. The findings suggest that structural disadvantage in rural areas (limited educational, employment opportunities, and recreational facilities) impact adversely on health outcomes, particularly mental health outcomes, and contribute to risk-taking behaviour. Such disadvantages should be considered by health-service policy makers and providers to redress the imbalance. Gender differences were also evident and efforts to target the specific needs of Australian adolescent boys are warranted.