Queensland Health’s Mobile Women’s Health Service is celebrating 30 years of delivering cervical screening and health checks to women living in the state’s rural and remote communities.
Since humble beginnings at its first base locations at Roma and Mt Isa in 1991, the Mobile Women’s Health Service has expanded and now visits a total of 151 communities from base locations across the state, consulting with more than 5,000 women each year.
The service was established to encourage women in rural and remote communities to be proactive about their health and wellbeing, as well as provide increased access to female cervical screening providers.
A total of 12 specially trained registered nurses provide the free and confidential service for women in the Hospital and Health Services of Cairns and Hinterland, Central Queensland, Central West, Darling Downs, Mackay, North West, South West, Torres and Cape, Townsville and Wide Bay.
The service addresses a range of topics related specifically to women’s health and wellbeing, including cervical screening, STIs, contraception, nutrition, menopause, continence and bone health, with clients ranging across all age groups.
Queensland Health’s Executive Director Preventive Health Branch, Mark West, said the service was complementary to existing health services in rural and remote communities.
“It’s important to offer women in these communities the opportunity to talk to a female practitioner about their health and wellbeing,” Mr West said.
“Some smaller communities have no GP or limited access to a female GP. At times, women may prefer a female practitioner for a variety of personal or cultural reasons.
“This service is especially important for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who often live in the state’s most remote locations, but also are more likely to develop chronic disease compared to non-Indigenous Queenslanders.”
Mr West said prevention was better than cure, and the Mobile Women’s Health Service was one way to help encourage women to be proactive about their health needs.
“Especially because of the remoteness of some areas, there is a focus on providing information to women to help them avoid ill-health through good nutrition, exercise, quitting smoking and keeping their cervical screening up to date,” he said.
“They also actively refer clients on a needs basis to a variety of agencies from GPs, allied health services, BreastScreen QLD, gynaecological outpatient services, and community agencies as needed.
“Since the Mobile Women’s Health Service and the Queensland Cervical Screening Program was initiated in 1991, the increased choice of provider has seen more Queensland women having cervical screening tests, and this has reduced the number of women developing cervical cancer.”
Between 2016 and 2020, the service collected more than 21,000 Pap Smear/Cervical Screening Tests, and nearly 100,000 since 2003.
“However, there is still a gap between Indigenous women and non-Indigenous women, and there is evidence that Indigenous women are generally under screened,” he said.
“The Australian Institute of Welfare’s Cervical Screening in Australia in 2019 Report states that the incidence of cervical cancer in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women is more than two times that of non-Indigenous women.
“One of our aims is to help close this gap by offering services to rural and remote communities.”
Barbara Milne is among the service’s longest serving nurses together with fellow nurses Kathryn Anning and Marcia Hunt. These three women provide the Mobile Women’s Health Service across the Darling Downs Hospital and Health Service Region.
These three nurses have spent more than 20 years with the Mobile Women’s Health Service, dedicating the majority of their nursing careers to rural women’s health, and are the service’s longest serving staff members.
Mrs Milne said she and her colleagues valued the privilege of being welcomed into the communities they visited and their health promotion role.
“This is not a typical nine-to-five job,” she said.
“We have long days and lots of travel involved, however the work remains highly rewarding because we get to forge real connections and solid professional relationships with the women who attend.
“If the service wasn’t provided, some rural women wouldn’t access routine or opportunistic screening services or have the opportunity to discuss issues which impact personal or family life.”
Marcia Hunt added there were many challenges with providing a health service to women in rural and remote regions in Queensland.
“Queensland is a large decentralised state, so it means a great deal of travel, and our northern Queensland colleagues have the added challenge of planning around wet seasons when roads can get cut off due to flooding,” she said.
“Despite these challenges, we all cherish supporting positive outcomes for women and their families - providing an impartial ear, empathy and a preventative, holistic approach to women’s health.” Kathryn Anning echoed the sentiments of her colleagues.
“We get the sense that we are able to make a real difference in the lives of rural women,” she said.
“Women feel comfortable and relaxed at our clinics and appreciate the extra time we are able to dedicate to each appointment due to our structure.”