Seeking a new challenge, in mid-2014, I left my national health policy role in Canberra to work in the Mt Isa Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Service. I’d lived rurally before - on a farm in rural New South Wales. However, Mt Isa in Queensland’s Gulf Region was much more remote.
Once there, I loved the work, my colleagues, the community – and I loved the Outback. It is stunningly beautiful. I never grew tired of the deep red earth and the green scrub. Or the eagles circling overhead, one of whom once swooped and, with surgical precision, extracted a sandwich from a colleague’s hand. Or the allure of the cyan-coloured waters of Adel’s Grove’s. And then there’s just simply the stillness (although this was broken regularly in Mt Isa by the eight o’clock blast from the mines).
From a work perspective, it was rewarding to translate policy ideas into real programs that made measurable differences: culturally relevant health promotion programs that enhanced health outcomes and school attendance; partnership programs that took a holistic view of wellbeing and connected cultural identify, social environment, work and training opportunities; and mobile outreach services such as our dental van that filled a gaping hole (no pun intended). We filled available appointments within hours of opening.
None of these ideas were new in concept it’s just that in a city-based policy role, it had been words on paper. Being in a rural community, helping to make it happen brought it to life.
Neither was it all romantic. My biggest personal challenge was loneliness outside of work. I threw myself into exercise and community groups, but I missed my partner, my family, my friends.
Then there was the reality of the significant obstacles that continue to hamper health service delivery in rural and remote Australia. I had written about these many times from the comfort of my desk in Canberra, but the lived experience really brought these obstacles home.
Everything remote takes more coordination and time – easily three to four times longer than in the city. Facilities, professionals, equipment often just don’t exist close by. Recruiting workforce is an ongoing battle and travel is challenging. Distances are long and many places don’t have mobile phone reception. (On regular 500-kilometre drives to our Normanton service, we would lose mobile reception about 20 kilometres out of Mt Isa, fleetingly reconnect at Cloncurry then have nothing again for 400 kilometres until just before Normanton.) Planes are infrequent and expensive. A return trip to Canberra was more than I’d pay for a flight to South East Asia. And the time cost (infrequent flights and connections usually meant staying overnight in Brisbane at least one way) was also significantly higher.
These and other costs hit locals hard. That’s part of the double kicker of living remotely: communities face higher costs but are usually on lower wages. This is sometimes hidden in mining towns like Mt Isa, especially when business is booming, but it’s there all the same. Then there’s the social dislocation. It’s tough out there - drought, unemployment, shifting populations including Fly-In-Fly-Outs and Drive-In-Drive-Outs, health and social challenges. It’s no exaggeration that in some situations, whole communities are traumatised. Canberra is removed from it and remote communities are removed from Canberra – we need strong links between them.
Friends of the Alliance is a great way to do this. Membership of Friends helped me stay in touch with Canberra when I was living remotely, and it really helps the rural voice get to Canberra too. I encourage you to join.
Rachel Yates was recently elected as the new Chair of the Friends Advisory Committee (FAC). Rachel is one of the ACT Representatives on the FAC and is a Member of Council of the National Rural Health Alliance, in which capacity she represents the views of Friends nationally.