Monday, 30 May 2016

Researchers ask: why go rural?

The Monash University Department of Rural Health is part of a large research collaboration currently working to discover which factors convince nursing and allied health students and graduates to come and work in rural and regional areas.

The Rural Health Workforce Australia-funded research project is being undertaken as part of wider efforts to address an undersupply and maldistribution of health professionals in rural and remote areas, including Gippsland.

Monash UDRH has joined forces with Flinders and Charles Darwin universities and the University of Newcastle’s Department of Rural Health to find out what lies behind a student’s decision to ‘go rural’.

Keith Sutton, a researcher with Monash UDRH – based in Moe - said collaborating with other university departments of rural health across Australia provided an opportunity “to present a broad picture to the Federal Government of the sorts of supports and processes required to encourage students and graduates to consider rural practice in a positive light”.

Why go rural? Melbourne-based allied health students visiting a Gippsland-based service during a vacation school program run by Monash UDRH which aims to showcase rural and regional practice to students.

As one of 11 researchers working on the six-month project, Dr Sutton said he hoped the findings would inform future policies aimed at alleviating historical shortages of nurses and allied health workers in regions like Gippsland, particularly in some of its more remote pockets.

Poorer access to quality healthcare providers has been cited as one of the primary causes of health inequity and poorer health outcomes for Australians living in rural and remote areas, with a 2014 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare study showing that the life expectancy of these Australians was up to seven years less than those in our major cities.

Allied health workers include occupational therapists, social workers, physiotherapists, dietetics, speech pathologists, pharmacists and radiographers. The challenge of attracting these professionals to rural areas is complicated by the need for many of them to undertake city-based study for four to six years, according to Dr Sutton.

Research interviewees include current students, recent graduates and industry stakeholders from across the nursing and allied health sector.

They are being asked about the motivations and advantages to working in both rural and urban locations and the barriers and obstacles associated with each, as well as their decision making processes, ways in which health service models and strategies could improve to enable them to work rurally and whether they undertook rural placements as part of their course.

“To date we know that coming from a rural background is the biggest single predictor of a student’s decision to work in a rural area after graduating but we also know if urban students have had long-term exposure – a minimum of six months – to rural placements within their courses, this is also influential however most placements are shorter than this,” Dr Sutton said.

While Monash Rural Health’s rural clinical training sites, including those in Bairnsdale, Sale, Traralgon Warragul, Leongatha, Bendigo and Mildura provide longer term placements for medical students, the same opportunities don’t yet exist for nursing and allied health students – although Dr Sutton said plans were afoot to facilitate this.

The evidence around the influence of longer rural clinical placements has been predominantly drawn from medical literature and Dr Sutton said it was vital to expand this research to encompass nursing and allied health students.

“There are so many factors which come into play in terms of these decisions, including where training is located for those who wish to specialise, and this project aims to add valuable insights for policy makers as they look at health system reform,” he said.

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