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Poor spatial access to health care remains a key issue for rural populations worldwide. Whilst geographic information systems (GIS) have enabled the development of more sophisticated access measures, they are yet to be adopted into health policy and workforce planning. This paper provides and tests a new national-level approach to measuring primary health care (PHC) access for rural Australia, suitable for use in macro-level health policy. The new index was constructed using a modified two-step floating catchment area method framework and the smallest available geographic unit. Primary health care spatial access was operationalised using three broad components: availability of PHC (general practitioner) services; proximity of populations to PHC services; and PHC needs of the population. Data used in its measurement were specifically chosen for accuracy, reliability and ongoing availability for small areas. The resultant index reveals spatial disparities of access to PHC across rural Australia. While generally more remote areas experienced poorer access than more populated rural areas, there were numerous exceptions to this generalisation, with some rural areas close to metropolitan areas having very poor access and some increasingly remote areas having relatively good access. This new index provides a geographically-sensitive measure of access, which is readily updateable and enables a fine granulation of access disparities. Such an index can underpin national rural health programmes and policies designed to improve rural workforce recruitment and retention, and, importantly, health service planning and resource allocation decisions designed to improve equity of PHC access.
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