A FAST-GROWING grassroots health program targeting hearing problems in Cape York and the Torres Strait has received a significant funding boost.
The Torres and Cape Hospital and Health Service Integrated Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) program was launched as a pilot in 2021 and is seeing exponential growth, with the number of patients seen almost doubling within 12 months.
The team includes a general practitioner with specialist ENT training, a senior ENT nurse, an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Worker, an audiologist and a speech pathologist who travel to 13 remote communities across the region.
They treat both children and adults, predominantly for hearing issues, but also with other ear, nose and throat conditions.
The team saw more than 1300 patients during 2022, well up from the 861 seen in 2021.
A further $1.6 million of state government funding has been committed to the program over 18 months which will allow for additional staff to support the huge growth.
Senior audiologist Kristen Tregenza said she believed the project’s success was due to the culturally-appropriate service they were providing, with patients now seeking them out instead of learning about them via referral.
She said most of the hearing conditions being seen and treated were caused by treatable ear infections.
“It is well documented that remoteness, lower socio-economic living and all the things that come with that – access to nutritious foods, housing conditions, exposure to passive cigarette smoke – significantly increase the number of ear infections, severity and recovery time,” she said.
“It is all preventable.”
Ms Tregenza said family education and awareness had significantly improved in the 17 years she had been working in the region, but there was still a long way to go and the ENT program aimed to help close the significant gap.
“I think the exponential growth we are experiencing right now is because the service is meeting a real need,” she said.
“We are working very hard to provide culturally appropriate services and I think part of that success can be measured as people want to access this service.”
Prior to the establishment of the ENT program, patients requiring treatment often had to travel to larger centres like Cairns to be seen by a doctor or specialist.
The ENT program sees the team, who are all Torres and Cape HHS staff, travel directly to community, with only a specialist surgeon flown in if surgery is required.
Small numbers of patients with more complex conditions may still need to travel for treatment.
TCHHS executive director of allied health Amanda Wilson said the initial success of the program had captured the attention of other health services around Queensland who were now considering replicating it.
She said the additional funding would allow the formation of a second team, including a second specialist ENT doctor who was due to start later this year.
“This will allow us to further increase our footprint, particularly in the Torres Strait outer islands,” she said.
“This program is at the cornerstone of health equity – allowing our people living in remote communities direct access to important health services to improve their quality of life.”
The additional funding comes ahead of National Close the Gap Day which will be held this week on Thursday, March 16.