Regional Health Planning

Briefing Note Summary

The population in the Far North Queensland region has higher health risk factors, lower life expectancy, a higher prevalence of disease and a higher number of potentially preventable hospitalisations compared to the rest of Queensland.

Cairns Hospital is under constant pressure as the only tertiary-level hospital in Far North Queensland. Additional health and community care initiatives can help to meet the community health needs and alleviate pressure on the hospital.

There are three identified strategies to address the health burden in the region:

  • Community-based mental health initiatives.

  • Bolstering of the local health workforce – including investment in education and research to ‘grow our own’

  • FNQ Palliative Care Hospice

The Issue

Regional health strategies

Tropical North Queensland (TNQ) continues to experience a high burden of disease and poorer health outcomes compared with the Queensland average. Cairns Hospital is the only tertiary-level hospital in TNQ, but it is under constant bed pressure, which negatively impacts the community’s access to acute care services. Unlike large metropolitan areas, there is only one emergency department in Cairns, with no option to divert to any other facilities when the hospital reaches capacity, both in terms of inpatient beds and emergency care.

Strategic initiatives are being progressed to maximise capacity at Cairns Hospital – including transitioning Cairns Hospital to university status – to allow the delivery of more and better health services, but additional primary health, early intervention and community care initiatives can also position the community to achieve better health outcomes and assist in alleviating the pressure on the acute care system.

To successfully achieve genuine improvements in health and wellbeing in TNQ, investment is required to ensure the community can access timely and appropriate healthcare and services. The five identified strategies are:

Community-based mental health initiatives

Mental health and wellbeing can dominate a person’s health status across their lifespan (including at a young age), and the demand for services in TNQ is at a critical point. Self-harm is one of the top five leading causes of death for people under the age of 65 in Queensland, and suicide and self-inflicted injuries in TNQ are higher than the state-wide rate. Services are needed in Cairns and regional areas to address the doubling of mental health and behavioural conditions since 2001, inclusive of psychological supports for children (who are often missed in service delivery) and to improve post-natal mental health where the impacts are felt by children and families.

Bolstering of the local health workforce

Investing in people creates long-term stability. Attracting people to rural and remote areas requires the system to demonstrate what it will do to retain them. Co-contributions to Cairns and Hinterland Hospital and Health Service and universities are sought to partner and provide conjoint appointments and research support positions to fully realise integration across clinical, research, and education functions, to enable the university hospital to become a reality. Coupled with James Cook University’s full medical degree training in Cairns as well as allocation of further Commonwealth Supported Places (CSPs), considerable benefits will be realised.

Far North Queensland Palliative Care Hospice

The demand for palliative care services within TNQ continues to increase year on year, with more than 720 people being admitted to hospital for palliative care in 2022 and many more receiving palliative care support in their homes. Currently, there are no palliative care hospice or respite centres for people with palliative care needs in TNQ. Cairns Hospital and the Gordonvale Palliative Care Unit (an off-site ward of Cairns Hospital) provide acute care for patients needing interventions and life-extending treatment. A community-run hospice would provide a comfortable residential environment away from a hospital environment to improve the wellbeing of adults and children who need end-of-life care and who cannot manage at home.


Easing regional health challenges

The Cairns Hospital supports an estimated resident population of 259,000 and regularly provides acute medical services for residents of the Cape York and Torres Strait Islands regions (a population close to 30,000). Combined with estimated population growth of 1.3% (compound annual growth rate) per annum and an ageing population, it is estimated that by 2026 an additional 27,643 people will reside in the catchment area with close to one in five residents aged over 65.

Cairns Hospital continues to see increased demand on its Emergency Department (ED). In 2021-2022 there were 85,622 ED presentations, growing 7.2% annually from FY20 to FY22 (significantly above population growth).

Cairns and Hinterland Hospital and Health Service (CHHHS) provides health services across the continuum of care to some of the most remote communities in Queensland and strives to meet the unique health needs of the largest and most diverse Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population in the state. A funding injection into the five identified health priorities will see benefits for the region, whilst also resulting in reduced pressure on Cairns Hospital, enabling the community to receive health care when and where they need it.

Next Steps

A suite of community-based mental health initiatives will address current and emerging mental health needs for the community, exacerbated due to the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are four high-impact strategies prioritised for community-based mental health intervention:

  • A GP/mental health model targeting integrated physical and mental health outcomes

  • Mental health services for children and families including psychological and family therapies

  • Community mental health services to regional townships such as the Atherton Tablelands (connected with existing initiatives)

  • A transition to parenthood (perinatal mental health & wellness) program.

A funding injection of $1.5m to the North Queensland Primary Health Network (NQPHN) to commission these services under the Joint Regional Wellbeing Plan for Northern Queensland is sought.

Ongoing investments into local health workforce development via bolstering of research and education is critical to enable development of alternative models of care and to ensure optimum health outcomes can be achieved. Cairns Hospital has a vision to become Cairns University Hospital with a range of benefits identified, including expanded clinical services enabling patients to receive care closer to home, attraction of high-calibre health specialists and researchers, and development of the local workforce. A recurrent funding injection of $2m to Cairns and Hinterland Hospital and Health Service is required to enable educational pipelines and conjoint appointments across Cairns Hospital and university partners.

Far North Queensland Palliative Care Hospice: Cairns Organisation United for Cancer Health (COUCH), a community-focused charity, has a strategy to create the Cairns COUCH Community Health Precinct, inclusive of a 12-bed palliative care hospice with respite facilities. Capital funding of $6m is sought to build the hospice within the COUCH precinct.

Our Recommendation

  • That funding of $1.5m be provided to enable comprehensive investment in community mental health initiatives.

  • That local health workforce funding ($2m) be provided to enable strategies to ‘grow our own’ via education pipelines and conjoint appointments between universities and Cairns Hospital to attract and retain staff.

  • That infrastructure funding of $6m be provided to build a palliative care hospice.


1. Queensland Health Rural and Remote Health and Wellbeing Strategy 2022-2027 Handbook