When you think of a paramedic, you probably think lights and sirens, followed by a trip to the emergency department.
But what if people could see a trained paramedic in their home, before they needed to call triple-0? Someone who could focus on prevention and rehabilitation, rather than emergency care?
They're called 'community paramedics' and, while they are common around the world, Australia is just cottoning on to their enormous benefits - particularly in rural and regional areas.
Unlike doctors, nurses and almost every other health professional, there is no shortage of paramedics in Australia. In fact, more than a quarter of Australia's 21,000 registered paramedics don't work for an emergency ambulance service. Yet they are highly skilled and trained healthcare professionals who can help people stay in their homes for longer.
Training community paramedics to work for ambulance services - but also community healthcare services and GP clinics - leads to decreased costs, increased access and a high level of satisfaction from patients.
It also alleviates pressure on our stretched-to-the-limit hospital system, reducing the number of people requiring assistance from an emergency department.
And no one could benefit more from community paramedics than rural and regional communities. Rural communities face immense workforce challenges as they struggle to attract and keep health professionals.
This pressure on the system means rural dwellers have less access to healthcare, and experience poorer health outcomes than their metropolitan counterparts. The pandemic, of course, has exacerbated the impact of these issues.
So what are the next steps?
We need to work out how to make optimal use of community paramedics' skills and availability. We need to develop innovative models to encourage paramedics, community health organisations and governments to consider this role in the wide range of settings where paramedics practice.
To find out more, health organisations and community members are invited to a free webinar on December 1. A panel of experts - including a practising community paramedic - will discuss what a community paramedic's role is, and how they can work outside the ambulance service.
Community paramedics are a new (work)force to be reckoned with. Let's make the most of them, for better health outcomes for everyone.
- Associate Professor Evelien Spelten, La Trobe Rural Health School researcher.