BACKGROUND: Australia's inequitable distribution of health services is well documented. Spatial access relates to the geographic limitations affecting the availability and accessibility of healthcare practitioners and services. Issues associated with spatial access are often influenced by Australia's vast landmass, challenging environments, uneven population concentration, and sparsely distributed populations in rural and remote areas. Measuring access contributes to a broader understanding of the performance of health systems, particularly in rural/remote areas. This systematic review synthesises the evidence identifying what spatial measures and geographic classifications are used and how they are applied in the Australian peer-reviewed literature.
METHODS: A systematic search of peer-reviewed literature published between 2002 and 2022 was undertaken using the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) methodology. Search terms were derived from three major topics, including:  Australian population;  spatial analysis of health service accessibility; and  objective physical access measures.
RESULTS: Database searches retrieved 1,381 unique records. Records were screened for eligibility, resulting in 82 articles for inclusion. Most articles analysed access to primary health services (n = 50; 61%), followed by specialist care (n = 17; 21%), hospital services (n = 12; 15%), and health promotion and prevention (n = 3; 4%). The geographic scope of the 82 articles included national (n = 33; 40%), state (n = 27; 33%), metropolitan (n = 18; 22%), and specified regional / rural /remote area (n = 4; 5%). Most articles used distance-based physical access measures, including travel time (n = 30; 37%) and travel distance along a road network (n = 21; 26%), and Euclidean distance (n = 24; 29%).
CONCLUSION: This review is the first comprehensive systematic review to synthesise the evidence on how spatial measures have been applied to measure health service accessibility in the Australian context over the past two decades. Objective and transparent access measures that are fit for purpose are imperative to address persistent health inequities and inform equitable resource distribution and evidence-based policymaking.
- Delivery of healthcare
- Health equity
- Health service
- Spatial access
- Spatial analysis
- Systematic review