Allies in rural health: using the full scope of practice of allied health professionals in rural and remote communities

  • Health professional helping another to walk

The COVID-19 pandemic caught the world off guard. Globally it required governments, policymakers and health services to be more adaptive and more flexible, and respond rapidly to protect the populations they serve. It has also provided a silver lining, by clearly demonstrating the full capability of health and human services to come together.

This pandemic has had marked physical and psychological impacts, with isolation, illness, economic and social restrictions, loss and uncertainty being widely felt across the world. In Australia, more people have sought information about managing stress and anxiety; mental health and the wellbeing of communities has been adversely affected.

During the pandemic, allied health professionals have stepped out of the shadows for Australian communities. For many Australians, prior to the pandemic, exposure to allied health professionals and the need to engage allied health care had been limited to personal experiences. The pandemic has highlighted that the skills and resources of the allied health workforce are essential to deliver social, emotional and physical preventive, acute and rehabilitative care, and this care is most effectively achieved when working collaboratively alongside their medical and nursing peers.

The pandemic has resulted in an increased demand for all health services and rapid change in how we deliver these services. In rural communities, already existing workforce shortages were further exacerbated by border closures and restricted travel. Pushing beyond the fatigue, Australia’s rural health professionals have worked tirelessly to ensure that those within their communities requiring care and assistance could be assured that they would have access to these critical services, when and where needed. As we move into a pandemic-normal way of living, the conversation regarding health care and the delivery of health services needs to continue to be as innovative and adaptable as the pandemic has shown that we can be as a society.

The Office of the National Rural Health Commissioner (ONRHC) has worked with communities, organisations, governments and health professionals since its inception in 2017. Since that time, Australia has witnessed devastating bushfires, floods and a global pandemic, and at the forefront has been the health workforce. Since July 2020, the ONRHC has been steered by the expertise and wisdom of the Commissioner, Adjunct Professor Ruth Stewart, and two Deputy Commissioners (Adjunct Professor Shelley Nowlan and Associate Professor Faye McMillan AM), as well as a dedicated behind-the-scenes team, to continue to drive and change the narrative on rural health and the workforces needed.

The current ONRHC structure and repositioning of the narrative to include allied health, nursing and midwifery, and other health professionals and workers, recognises the significant contribution of all who provide care and that we are stronger together. This change in narrative has also shifted the optics of how the ONRHC is viewed and who it represents. It reflects the reality of many rural communities and demonstrates the strength of being in relationships with colleagues from different health disciplines and the synergies that can be drawn from these relationships. When communities are involved in the design of health services, we are stronger still.

Patient care, and specifically rural patient care, is most effectively managed within place-based, multidisciplinary models of care that include allied health professionals, nurses, rural generalists, general practitioners and specialists working together. This is an important time to raise awareness of the vital role that multidisciplinary teams play in high-quality rural health delivery. The diversity of the allied health workforce, and the skills that have been brought to the fore during this time, demonstrate their role in multidisciplinary integrated health workforces. This needs to be embraced to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of all Australian communities.

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