Australia’s rural and remote communities are facing doctor shortages at unprecedented levels. The workforce we do have is at ever-increasing risk of burnout from this ongoing shortage, along with more than two years of a global pandemic and increasing instances of environmental disasters. We’re all impacted by this – communities and healthcare workers – but women are probably feeling the squeeze disproportionately. We often carry the lion’s share of the mental load of running households, taking care of children, looking after homes and properties, often while also maintaining jobs and careers.
Greater attention is needed to research highlighting the fact that women face significant barriers to accessing health care in rural and remote areas. In particular, the lower rates of female doctors and allied health practitioners in these areas mean that women are far less likely to even seek review. Being a First Nations patient makes that reality even worse.
Increasing the medical and allied health workforce will improve this situation for all. Aiming for higher numbers of female and First Nations healthcare workers and general practitioners (GPs) will improve things even further.
Building the workforce and attracting it to rural and remote areas takes time. What can we be doing for our patients now? And what can we be doing to support each other, as rural female health practitioners, now?
A burden shared is a burden halved. While isolation can be a huge factor for those living rurally and remotely, the encouragement of connection – either face to face or virtually – can provide emotional support and avenues for connecting, to ease the burden of carrying the mental load. One thing that COVID-19 has given us is a strengthened appetite and ability to connect remotely with our GPs, psychologists and other allied health providers. Hopefully, that will remain long after this pandemic.
But it need not only be a connection with healthcare workers that reduces the feeling of isolation for women. Social, professional and educational groups can all use the online virtual world to connect and communicate. That feeling of connection and support, even when coming from afar, can become a lifeline for those who are living in isolation.
The focus on health promotion can also reap great dividends in terms of improving the wellbeing of rural and remote women. Encouraging women to really focus on taking care of their own health, and prioritising their own needs, is vital. Promoting simple but effective measures like making time for adequate sleep, taking time to exercise and improve physical health, promotion of work–life balance, eating a healthy diet and focusing on the things that are most important – family, friendships and relationships – are simple things that are all too often lost in the chaos of day-to-day life.
It’s also important for women working in rural medicine to connect with colleagues from around Australia. Not only to keep up to date with what’s happening in other areas, but to share ideas and strategies to overcome challenges as they arise and to fight against loneliness and burnout. The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) has started a new gender-inclusive Doctors for Women in Rural Medicine (DWRM) committee, aiming to elevate, empower and encourage women working in rural medicine. It will facilitate a connection to share experiences, challenges and solutions. It will also capture the voices of, and issues affecting, rural GPs to provide clear recommendations to the RACGP and Australian Government to support women working in rural and remote medicine. Collectively, our voices can be heard.
There are no easy answers and no quick fixes. But, each and every day, we can try to promote a focus on small measures that will encourage connection, improve health and wellbeing, and strengthen the emotional and mental health of our rural and remote women, and ourselves.
Find out about the RACGP’s Doctors for Women in Rural Medicine committee on the RACGP website or join our Facebook Group